Russell Baillie writes about movies for the Herald

Movie Review: War Dogs

It is a movie with some particularly Miami vices. Guns, drugs, flash cars, prostitutes, tanning clinics, and rich dudes requiring poolside massage therapy.

But while a poster of Al Pacino's Tony Montana firing his machine gun in the coked-up classic Scarface hangs on an office wall throughout, and Jonah Hill's character briefly goes ballistic with an AK47 in homage, War Dogs is about being married to a different sort of mob.

They're called the US Government.

In this based-on-a-true-story caper, Hill and Miles Teller plays the twentysomething bong bros who go into business together arranging weapons deals with the US Defense Department.

Yes, how a couple of dudes exploited a Federal procurement process that was opened to all-comers after disquiet over arms industry cronyism with the Bush-Cheney regime might not seem a hotbed of fun.

But War Dogs is just that. Fun. And while it's a little uneven of tone and slick in its delivery, it's smarter than it looks too.

Which might be surprising considering writer-director Todd Phillips is best known for the Hangover trilogy.

Like Adam McKay, whose Wall Street takedown The Big Short elevated him from being the guy behind all those Will Ferrell comedies, Phillips has found there is nothing more entertainingly ridiculous than greedy guys exploiting business loopholes to the fullest.

Here, there that makes for a movie that does remind of The Big Short, as well as the David O. Russell capers like American Hustle and Gulf War romp Three Kings - especially when War Dogs' lead duo find themselves in a truck driving from Jordan to Baghdad with a banned export order of Italian Beretta pistols to deliver to their disgruntled client, a US army captain training Iraqi police.

Hill's presence also links this to Wolf of Wall Street thought the Scorsese movie this most resembles is Goodfellas.

Hill is terrific as Efraim, the guy who invites his old schoolmate David (Teller) into his uncle's arms business which, initially, is built on filling the small orders that the big players can't be bothered with and which are tendered for online.

Slick-haired and over-confident, Efraim is clearly an entrepreneurial genius. Or a big fat liar who should not be trusted.

Figuring out Hill's take on his unhinged character is one of the chief pleasures of War Dogs.

The story is told, though, through the eyes of David, who ditches his gig as a massage therapist to join Efraim's arms brokerage.

As well as the guy gathering speed on a moral slippery slope, David is the guy with something to lose. Just as he's weighing his career choices, his girlfriend Iz (Ana de Armas, as pretty as she is underdeveloped as a character) announces she's pregnant.

Money aside, he knows selling guns is going to offer more excitement than his own business idea - wholesaling high quality bed linen to Florida retirement homes.

So it proves, having survived that smuggling mission Baghdad, David and Efraim putting together a $300 million deal shifting stockpiled Cold War AK47 ammo from Albania to US-backed forces in Afghanistan.

Phillips' Hangover star Bradley Cooper turns up for an amusing turn the shady middleman in the deal which we know from the flash-forward opening scene is going to go sour.

How it all falls apart is quite a yarn, one originally told in a Rolling Stone article which was the source material for the script.

Its screen version may put a glossy, goofy spin on real events and initially demand we rejoice in the brazenness of a couple of shysters.

But as an only-in-America black comedy of how simple it was to dupe the military industrial complex, War Dogs still does the business.

War Dogs

Cast: Jonah Hill, Miles Teller, Ana de Armas
Director: Todd Phillips
Rating: R16 (violence, offensive language, drug use)
Running time: 115 mins
Verdict: Surprisingly high-calibre worryingly factual gun-running bro-comedy

- NZ Herald

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