So this is weird: Vocally, Jonah Hill and Miles Teller sound eerily alike, even though they’re completely different physical types. If “War Dogs” were more interesting, funnier, wilder, something, anything, this wouldn’t warrant a mention. But director and co-writer Todd Phillips’ flat, enervated movie, based on a 2011 Rolling Stone story about a couple of Miami pals who stumbled into the wonderful world of international arms-dealing, gives you all too much time to focus on things like the actors’ speaking voices.
The energy seeps out of scene after scene, no matter how aggressively the “Hangover” director tries to Scorsese his way through the material. What does it mean to “Scorsese”? The verb “Scorsese” (interchangeable with “Marty,” as in “Martying a scene”) means indiscriminate numbers of “GoodFellas”-type freeze-frames, while our narrator voice-overs another round of exposition. It means wallowing in seductive, lethal excess and morally challenged endeavors of moneymaking for the cinematic joy of it, and as an act of empathetic dramatic interpretation. It means Martying the bejeezus out of a story in order to keep the top spinning.
“War Dogs” tries. A 2008 prologue reveals David Packouz, the Teller character, at the wrong end of a pistol somewhere in Albania. How did he get there? Zwoop back to 2005. At a schoolmate’s funeral in Miami, David reunites with his troublemaking high school friend Efraim Diveroli (Hill). Efraim used to buy and sell firearms online. Now, though, he specializes: “I only sell to one gun nut: The U.S. military.”
The movie follows a familiar blueprint of seduction, one wolf indoctrinating another wolf into the world of high-risk riches. First the boys scrounge for low-level U.S. government contracts, supplying America’s fighting forces (and the Iraqi police) with pistols at a nice profit. Their makeshift company’s low-ball bids prove successful. Then, the mother lode: They land a contract supplying the Afghan military with 100 million rounds of AK-47 ammo, a deal requiring a shady middleman (Bradley Cooper) but worth tens of millions. It’s a long way from David’s previous line of sales, involving “quality bedsheets wholesale.”
David lies up a storm to his pregnant girlfriend (Ana de Armas, all generic, comely patience and then a tiny bit of backbone) about his actual job and his actual whereabouts. The movie lies, too. It promises rollicking bromance with a chase of moral reckoning, but “War Dogs” doesn’t have the nerve or the filmmaking acumen to challenge the audience.
One shot in particular points to the film that could’ve been. Retreating from gunfire coming from Iraqi insurgents, the lads are rescued by a U.S. military helicopter in the nick of time. Then a U.S. military vehicle passes them on a desert highway, its occupants giving our antiheroes the bird. David and Efraim are stoner savants in over their heads, “war dogs” profiting from one geopolitical crisis after another.
They’re like Brecht’s Mother Courage without actual personality. (Stephen Chin and Jason Smilovic co-wrote the script with Phillips.) The movie coasts on a blase, easygoing highway of cynicism regarding how America conducts its business of war. Despite all the Martifications and Scorsese-ing, we’re left with virtually nothing, except the feeling that a pretty good anecdote has been inflated into a bubble-headed American Dream morality tale.
Rated: R for language throughout, drug use, some sexual references. Starring: Jonah Hill, Miles Teller, Steve Lantz. Director: Todd Phillips. Running time: 114 minutes. Theaters: Edwards 21, Edwards 9, Edwards 14, Edwards 12, Majestic 18, Village Cinema.