One of those stranger-than-fiction true stories provides the basis for War Dogs, a cracking comedy thriller from The Hangover director Todd Phillips, named after the small-business arms dealers who cashed in under the Bush administration.
Jonah Hill and Miles Teller (Whiplash) are surely the strangest of these opportunists, two 20-something stoners from Miami Beach who somehow win contracts to supply arms to the US military in Iraq and Afghanistan through the mid-to-late noughties.
Hill is a study in excess as Efraim Diveroli, from his immense waistline to his in-your-face attitude. After reconnecting with his old school buddy David Packouz (Teller), he pulls an AK47 on a street hood – firing it into the air in broad daylight.
Guns are his uncle’s stock-in-trade, but Hill has worked out that the big money is in the War on Terror. Through a public website designed to open the field to small businesses (that Bush, so socially conscious…), he pitches for US defence contracts supplying random bits and pieces of lethal hardware.
Hill tells Teller he “lives off the crumbs, like a rat”, but in a billion-dollar industry the crumbs are worth millions. With a baby on the way and massage therapy proving to be a greasier business than he had expected, Teller forgets his antiwar principles and becomes Hill’s right-hand man.
That’s the cue for Phillips to launch into a Goodfellas-style rags-to-filthy-riches morality tale, with kinetic camerawork (although, crucially, not too much) and a wry voiceover by Teller that boggles at just how easy it is to muscle in among the big boys. Is there a catch? Of course, there is.
Small hiccups have life-threatening consequences, like a logistical problem caused by trade embargoes that means Hill and Teller have to go in on the ground in Iraq to deliver a shipment of Berettas. This sequence could be a film in itself, tickling the funny bone while being heart-hammeringly tense.
The action gains even more momentum when the pair get a bite on a hotly contested contract worth hundreds of millions – although they realise it may be more than they can chew. A bug-eyed Bradley Cooper (his eyes unnervingly magnified by his glasses) holds the key to a massive dump of Albanian ammo that could help secure the deal, but he’s on the US terror watchlist. An ominous mood builds, not least because the terms sound too good to be true.
Hill and Teller take success for granted, turning up for a meeting in Washington in a haze of pot smoke. But that leads to the harder stuff for Hill. And in a gangster film like this (and these two are essentially gangsters, despite their association with the government), that’s always a sign of bad things to come.
Even as Phillips mines slackerish behaviour for laughs, more tragically he reveals how cracks form in the partnership. Increasingly, Teller is torn between his wife (Ana de Armas) and child and the egocentric Hill. But when a gun is put to his head, it’s the beginning of the inevitable end.
Hill and Teller play two very different characters who wouldn’t be easily likeable except that the script (co-written by Phillips) and the actors successfully trade on the guys’ naivety. Hill has an especially tough task and successfully brings humanity – more specifically, a boyish neediness – to his portrayal of a shameless glutton who can barely see past the dollar signs in his eyes.
Sobering moments come between regular shots of wry humour and rattling jolts of adrenaline, all skilfully pulled together by Phillips without one element undermining the other. There’s never a dull moment in War Dogs and just when you think it can’t get any crazier, it blows your mind.