Todd Phillips has a problem. The kind that might be akin to something like having Michael Bay Syndrome. Perhaps appropriately born in Dix Hills, New York, Phillips–né Bunzl–has been coasting on the “frat boy” demographic for most of his film career. From his first major commercial endeavor, Road Trip, back in 2000, Phillips has always catered to the hyper testosterone-filled white male.
With his most “iconic” work, The Hangover (and its follow-ups that would go on to form a trilogy), Phillips solidified his reputation as the go-to auteur for catering to bros posing as “semi-intelligent.” Based on the true story of David Packouz (Miles Teller) and Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill), the two youngest men to make an arms deal of one of the most massive calibers in history with the U.S. Department of Defense back in 2007, War Dogs is often misogynistic, rarely entertaining and always just a little bit lacking.
Though there was a third person involved in Efraim and David’s initial lineup at AEY Inc., a fellow stoner named Alex Podrizki, it doesn’t make for quite as good Caesar and Brutus level betrayal when there’s a trio involved. And indeed, the Brutus representative in this scenario (if we want to lend War Dogs that much literary cachet) is Efraim, who appears out of the woodwork at a funeral for a mutual friend of his and David’s. Though the duo was inseparable in their preadolescence, Efraim’s move to another city–paired with David’s mother’s disapproval of him–kept them apart up until their twenties.
Saddled with a thankless job as a masseur for rich old men in Miami Beach, David is gradually reaching his wit’s end–especially after his investment in selling sheets to nursing homes (obviously quite prevalent in Florida) turns out to be a bust in that no owner is willing to pay for premium quality bedding when they look at senior citizens as the walking dead anyway. With all of his money poured into this endeavor, David’s worry increases when his girlfriend, Iz (Ana de Armas), tells him she’s pregnant. Thus, Efraim’s return to his life seems particularly fortuitous as he offers David a partnership at the embryonic AEY, explaining that the opportunity to sell weapons to the U.S. government is more lucrative than ever considering the Bush administration’s desperation to outfit soldiers with enough defense and ammo to fight in both Iraq and Afghanistan. This fact, paired with Efraim’s philosophy of “All the money is made between the lines” and “Everybody is ignoring the crumbs. But I live on crumbs. I’m a rat,” means plenty of room for loose morality on the moneymaking front. David, knowing this level of shadiness would upset Iz, decides to tell her that he’s using Efraim’s government contacts to sell the sheets that he couldn’t to various rest homes.
With the lie set in motion, David begins his alternate life as a gunrunner, choosing to ignore what certain mutual acquaintances have said about Efraim’s propensity for betrayal (the rumor is that he ripped off his uncle of $70,000 in Los Angeles while getting his start for him in the weapon-selling business). The corrupt ways of Efraim quickly come to haunt them after AEY agrees to sell a few thousand Berettas to U.S. troops stationed in Baghdad. Unfortunately, an Italian embargo on shipping guns to Iraq leaves the shipment stranded in Jordan, forcing Efraim and David to personally deliver the cargo by car to Baghdad through what is known as the “triangle of death.” Sealing their reputation as trustworthy, Efraim and David are able to take AEY to the next level with this deal–even though it means Iz finds out about what David is really involved in as a result.
And so begins the gradual disintegration of Iz and David’s relationship thanks to the latter’s constant need shield her from the truth. As AEY starts getting enough big ticket contracts to have a proper office and hire a robust amount of employees, Efraim and David head to the Las Vegas convention (what David calls “like ComicCon” for the arms business) to make their presence as a force to be reckoned with known. It’s there that David encounters infamous major player Henry Girard (Bradley Cooper, a Phillips staple) at the roulette table. The illustrious arms dealer is not only on a terrorist watch list, but he’s also almost impossible to reach unless he’s the one who reaches you. That being said, he offers David and Efraim the opportunity to sign one of the most sought after contracts, supplying millions of bullets to the U.S. army in Afghanistan. With Girard willing to give them his Albanian source, a factory filled with boxes upon boxes of ammo that Albania wants to unload, Efraim and David agree to take a chance–in spite of Girard’s known shyster tendencies.
At first feeling like they’ve won the arms dealing lottery, it quickly becomes clear that the two have been sold a bum deal when they realize the bullets are Chinese–a fact in direct conflict with the U.S.’ embargo on Chinese arms (it’s like the Beretta deal but a literal million times worse).
Tellingly, Ralph Slutzky (Kevin Pollack), a dry cleaner and one of their first investors, was one of the major duped stepping stones to AEY greatness, with Efraim feigning a certain kind of Jewishness to appeal to Ralph’s kindness. David remarks in voiceover, “That was Efraim’s genius: he would figure out who someone wanted him to be and he would become that person.” He even found out how to play David for so long by acting the role of loyal childhood friend with such seeming sincerity. And this is one of the sole redeeming elements of War Dogs: the depth and complexity of Efraim’s evil almost riveting to watch–though we’re never given a clear-cut reason behind why Efraim is driven to such lengths of debauchery. His greatest punishment is perhaps being played by Jonah Hill, as the real Efraim is far more attractive (the mark of any master con man).
While War Dogs is theoretically “different” from anything Phillips has ever done, the same formula for The Hangover remains, boiled down to something chauvinistic Girard says: “That’s why I like the arms business: no women.” And that’s also why men love Phillips’ movies so much: it’s all bro friendships, strippers and zero consequences.