[Screen It]


(2016) (Miles Teller, Jonah Hill) (R)

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Drama: Two childhood friends find success as adult arms dealers to the U.S. government.
It's 2005 and David Packouz (MILES TELLER) is a young massage therapist living in Miami who hasn't had much success in his life. A falling out with his parents, just one semester in college and a number of failed jobs have led him to try to sell bed sheets to senior citizen homes, but even that has flopped. A chance reunion with his childhood friend, Efraim Diveroli (JONAH HILL), however, changes everything.

He's been living in Los Angeles but has returned with a new business ploy that's quickly become lucrative. Having learned that all U.S. military contracts now have to be open online bids, he's set out to win the small ones that nobody else wants or seems to care about. With financial backing from local Laundromat chain owner Ralph Slutzky (KEVIN POLLAK), he's managed to fly under the radar in fulfilling those military contract orders and now wants his old pal to join him. And the timing couldn't be any better as David has just found out his girlfriend, Iz (ANA DE ARMAS), is pregnant.

David quickly learns the ropes of the business and lands a contract with Captain Philip Santos (PATRICK ST. ESPRIT) who needs weaponry on the front lines in Iraq. When complications arise, David and Efraim arrange for his weaponry to be delivered to Jordan and then hire a local man they call Marlboro (SHAUN TOUB) to drive them and their shipment into Iraq. With the success of that, their business continues to grow, eventually to the point of attempting to bid on a huge contract. That results in them meeting arms dealer Henry Girard (BRADLEY COOPER) who has access to lots of Cold War munitions wanted by the U.S. military for the war in Afghanistan.

And when problems arise with that, David and Efraim become resourceful once again, enlisting the aid of Albanian packing and shipping businessman Enver (GABRIEL SPAHIU) to help them out. But as more complications arise and tensions rise between David and Efraim -- and David and Iz back home -- it's unclear how things will play out or how dangerous matters might become.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
According to a news article titled "The Long, Expensive History of Defense Rip-Offs" from a few years back, overzealous and unchecked spending and being overcharged by contractors has plagued the American military since the 1700s.

That included the Truman Committee finding wasteful war production to the tune of $15 billion (in 1940s era numbers), a mid 1980s report of "$640 toilet seats, $660 ashtrays, $7,600 coffee-makers, and $74,000 ladders" and a House oversight committee finding in 2013 that a Swiss contractor was overpaid by more than three-quarters of a billion dollars feeding troops in Afghanistan.

Such lack of financial responsibility and management probably doesn't surprise most people nowadays -- what with the dim view of the government -- but what if I told you that a Miami massage therapist and a mentally unstable man nearly got away with selling banned Chinese ammunition to the U.S. military in a roughly $300 million contract a few years back?

You'd think I was making it up, right? That it sounds like some Hollywood satire about such unchecked government spending. Well, the movie part is right, as is the actual tale it's based on, and that "fact is stranger than fiction" plot now arrives on the big screen in the dramedy "War Dogs."

Based on a Rolling Stone article by Guy Lawson and his subsequent book "War Dogs: The True Story of How Three Stoners From Miami Beach Became the Most Unlikely Gunrunners in History" the film details the exploits of just two of them, and while it takes a fair amount of artistic license with the truth, it's still an amazing tale. And a fairly entertaining mid August diversion at the movies.

Writer/director Todd Phillips (of "The Hangover" trilogy fame) and co-writers Jason Smilovic and Stephen Chin adapt Lawson's story as a standard rags to riches to falling prey to too much success too quickly sort of tale. In it, Jonah Hill plays a relative newbie in the military contractor field who recruits his former childhood friend (Miles Teller) to join him in his increasingly lucrative but so far flying under the radar endeavor.

Their modus operandi is to choose the contract "crumbs" no one else notices or wants and thus have a far better chance of winning those versus more lucrative but harder to win bids. The fun of the movie is in watching these two guys repeatedly having to call audibles when complications arise, such as when servicing a U.S. captain (Patrick St. Esprit) and realizing they can't get their order delivered to Iraq (thus necessitating a "road trip") or realizing another arms dealer (Bradley Cooper) has taken them for a ride.

Other complications include David's live-in girlfriend (Ana de Armas) -- and now mother to his child -- not being happy with his less than truthful nature with her, or the partners eventually ending up at odds about how to run the business. While I'm not always a fan of voice-over narration in dealing with those and other matters, it works here (as supplied by Teller) in a sort of "Goodfellas" and "Wolf of Wall Street" sort of way, while the dialogue is occasionally rather brilliant.

Phillips has a good handle on staging the story's various scenes ranging from peril in Iraq to partying in Miami, and the performers are all up to the task of creating believable and interesting characters. Although we've seen their character types and this sort of tale before, all involved provide enough tweaks to make it feel fresh enough to come off as entertaining (in a cautionary tale sort of way). Overall, I enjoyed the flick that only goes to prove that when it comes to the U.S. government, you should never really be surprised by how much is paid and to whom. "War Dogs" rates as a 6 out of 10.

Reviewed August 15, 2016 / Posted August 19, 2016

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