Don’t listen to anyone who tries to tell you that War Dogs is another The Big Short or Wolf of Wall Street. Consider instead its strong journalistic pedigree: It’s based on Guy Lawson’s eye-opening 2011 Rolling Stone story “The Stoner Arms Dealers” and his subsequent book Arms and the Dudes. Both dissect Efraim Diveroli and David Packouz, Miami Beach 20-something pals and fellow members of the city’s Beth Israel Synagogue who bullshitted their way into a $300 million Pentagon contract in 2007 to supply ammunition to Kabul. On the sly, the two hucksters repurposed and repackaged old, crap Chinese ammo and finally got caught. The true story is so out there, so damning to the U.S. and its obsession with endless war that it begs for a master satirist to take it on.

What you get is a solid bro action comedy, co-written by Jason Smilovic and Stephen Chin with director Todd Phillips—the latter taking a big step up from his Hangover trilogy. Jonah Hill plays the scuzzy, egomaniacal entrepreneur manipulator Diveroli, who eventually got the front page New York Times notoriety he craved when he got busted for conspiracy. He continued selling arms as his court date loomed, yet he actually got his four-year sentence reduced by cooperating with the Feds. Hill bites into the role with gusto and gives the movie its manic, coke-eyed spark.

Co-star Miles Teller plays the hapless, morally challenged, married-with-baby massage therapist Pakouz, who, out to make a quick buck but no mastermind, was judged a go-along guy and received a seven-month home arrest sentence. It’s a wisely toned-down performance in an otherwise jacked-up world.

Warner Bros. Pictures

War Dogs is energetic, nervy and never dull. It even has things to say about America’s single-minded obsession with success at all costs, with rot at the highest levels of government and with how the U.S. looks the other way when it comes to cozying up with shady arms dealers, let alone dictators. But until the screenplay takes a dark turn 2/3 of the way through, the movie is a Scarface-worshiping romp awash in drugs, hot women and great cars; an orgy of lying, scheming and stealing your way to the top of the heap.

Retitled from the much smarter Arms and the Dudes, War Dogs is a well-made, pacey, even laugh-out-load flick at times, a quasi-serious look at men behaving really badly, with excellent yin-yang performances from Hill (enjoyably loathsome and skeevy) and wisely Teller. The movie’s not as lacerating or memorable as it has every right to be. Then again, it’s a big studio-financed corporate thing, and it’s still got a nice bite.  

War Dogs

Warner Bros. Pictures