There have been few articles in the past decade that were more guaranteed for cinematic adaptation than Guy Lawson’s 2011 feature, The Stoner Arms Dealers. Falling into all of Hollywood’s current sweet spots, the story follows a pair of entrepreneurial stoners who lucked into some of the most high-profile arms deals of the last few decades. Though it aligns with the Seth Rogen/Evan Goldberg mold of unlikely heroes—read: “lovable losers”—tossed into dangerous hijinks, on a much larger, sociopolitical scale, it falls in line with thinly camouflaged agitprop (like The Big Short and The Wolf of Wall Street) that pokes at America’s ingrained systems of dysfunction.
So the story goes: Together David Packouz and Efraim Diveroli were responsible for some of the biggest weapons deals of the Bush-era, making millions through pure chutzpah. While they idolized Scarface, they were more often Cheech & Chong, even down to the way they have such a deep knowledge of certain specific subjects, yet can barely see the red flags right in front of them.
Contrasting with the source material, in War Dogs David (Miles Teller) and Efraim’s (Jonah Hill) wastoid personas have been significantly softened. They’re still toking up any chance they can get while negotiating with some of the most influential people in the world, but David has been transformed into a family man for a more blandly sympathetic central hero. Saddled with the offensively naive Iz (Ana De Armas)—who’s little more than the archetypal nagging wife, and a forced moral compass—David’s a blandly handsome slacker living in Miami, hatching small-time schemes until childhood friend Efraim gives him an opportunity to take the “whole system” for a ride.
Efraim is a swinging dick narcissist, and another opportunity for Hill to continue his career of over-compensators. From Moneyball to Superbad, his characters are bratty, undeserving underdogs whose bark is worse than their bite. And as such, Hill still has an characteristically endless stockpile of homophobic and racist bon mots, but his shtick has never felt as stale as it does here.
Following their story in chronological order, the film segments their saga, but the pacing follows with very little rhyme or reason. Huge portions of screen-time are devoted to visually flat sequences of David and Efraim making deals over the telephone that are meant to depict their rise, but they fail to impart how much time has passed—or why these encounters matter at all. It’s less meandering than it is deeply anticlimactic, as on-screen quotes foreshadow each new tonal change.
Even worse, director Todd Phillips lacks the vision to make War Dogs work as either an effective piece of blackened satire, or as the raunchy, slighter comedy to which the original source material already lent itself so well. And so it ends up being an unholy mix of comedy without the inventive profanity, a power fantasy without the sense of aspiration and a morality play that doesn’t feel guilty whatsoever about its indulgences. At times the film even seems to want to be a rowdier version of Charlie Wilson’s War, mining comedy in the absurdity of what draws ordinary people into atrocity. The script is never able or confident enough to present this story with any sense of growing tension (with the exception of a late-film antagonist), and while this is the rare Phillips film which might provide you with trivia about geopolitical trade embargo regulations, these details are often just fodder for forced narrative conflict.
The film occasionally moves away from the endless scenes of phone conversations into two lengthy set-pieces in Iraq and Albania, but these do little to inform either plot progress or deeper character development. Even as David and Efraim are surrounded by the sensual heat of the Iraq desert and the dilapidated cityscape of Albania, cinematographer Lawrence Sher and Phillip’s visual sensibility falls resoundingly flat.
The film stumbles further whenever it starts remembering its characters have a conscience—namely, when David starts fretting about the moment when his life became all about circumventing the law. These scenes are more than rushed, they’re representative of the sloppy tonal gumbo of the film. Phillips generally shows Teller and Hill’s characters as unabashed capitalists who don’t consider the consequences of their actions, but he still wants them to be seen as tragic heroes. The film, of course, never earns this. There’s a great story here, but it’s not really about the rise-and-fall of two unlikely weapons czars. It’s about the circumstances that can allow a story like this to exist at all.
Director: Todd Phillips
Writers: Stephen Chin, Todd Phillips, Jason Smilovic, Guy Lawson
Starring: Miles Teller, Jonah Hill, Ana De Armas, Kevin Pollak, Bradley Cooper, Shaun Toub, JB Blanc
Release Date: August 19, 2016