A newspaper exposé about a couple of scrappy kids from Miami, eyes starry with visions of the American dream, leaping before they look into a situation that quickly has them in over their heads. You’d be forgiven for thinking I was talking about Pain & Gain, but no. This is War Dogs, about an entirely different couple of screwups, as much as Hangover series creator Todd Phillips seems to wish he were directing Michael Bay’s best movie in a decade.
The similarities are impossible to miss, right from the beginning at a moment of crisis. The lead and narrator has been up and felt his position slipping, but we come in just when it gives way entirely. In this case it’s David Packouz (Miles Teller), who went in with his childhood friend Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill) as an international arms dealer. We meet him as he gets kidnapped in the middle of Albania and brought before black marketeer Henry Girard (Bradley Cooper), who thinks Packouz is trying to screw him on a very big deal, which is about to go very sideways. And then we flash back to the beginning.
Was there really a Henry Girard? I don’t know. It seems unlikely that Packouz would hide this man from his testimony when facing charges, and then tell all about him in a memoir. Packouz and Diveroli, at least, are very real, although it seems unlikely that Teller and Hill’s performances reflect their reality. Told entirely in Packouz’ narration, he comes off as as a well-meaning kid who fell in with the bad influence his parents had always warned him about. And even Diveroli comes off as less of a flat-out, manipulative psychopath and more of a bro whose friends tend to take the fall when his lulz go wrong.
I’d say that this sort of first-person narration requires a sympathetic narrator, but that’s not really the case. Bay — God help me, I’m about to praise Michael Bay here — managed to soften Daniel Lugo without losing sight of his fundamental scumbag nature. These guys didn’t stumble into their hubris; they were brought up in ease and privilege, scions of well-off and well-known families. But you wouldn’t know it to hear Phillips tell their story.
And this really is the story they might want to tell about themselves. Even Diveroli; he’s suing Warner Brothers not because he doesn’t like how he’s portrayed as the bigger, more irresponsible screwup between the two, but because he’s not getting the piece of the action he thinks he deserves. That whole “drove through the ‘Triangle of Death'” bit heavily featured in all the ads? never happened, but it does make them look like accidental badasses doesn’t it?
Pain & Gain was fictionalized, but every scene contained a kernel of its bizarrely true story. War Dogs just makes up whatever it thinks the audience would like to hear. But then, that’s pretty much what its own protagonists would do, so maybe it’s fitting.
Worth It: no.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.