Most of us – or perhaps, all of us – had that one friend who always pushed the envelope and thought that any sort of “rule” was simply a four-letter word. I certainly had such a buddy in high school, and we broke a few four-letter words, and in the aftermath, my parents found me guilty by association and participation a few times. (A few times too many, I may add.) Eventually, I wised up and - quite frankly - haven’t seen this friend since my senior year.
David (Miles Teller) and Efraim (Jonah Hill) were best friends but haven’t seen each other since their sophomore year. They did catch up about 10 years later at a funeral, and just after the services ended, they connected on a drive in Miami. Soon, Efraim hires David to work for his company, AEY. Since David’s career aspirations are waning as a massage therapist, he jumps at the chance for a new opportunity.
Now, Efraim lived on the edge in high school, and his dangerous life arc has accelerated, because his company – in which he is the CEO – sells weapons to the U.S. military during the Iraq War.
“War Dogs” – directed and co-written by Todd Phillips (“The Hangover”, “Old School”) and based upon a true story – acts as both a comedy and an intriguing drama, and Teller and Hill seamlessly handle both tones with ease. In 2004, Teller’s David is struggling to make his mark in the world and stands on loose, economic ground. Simultaneously, he is morally grounded and enjoying a solid relationship with his supportive girlfriend, Iz (Ana de Armas).
Meanwhile, Hill’s Efraim rides into David’s life on a south Florida hurricane with no attachments and limited scruples, so their past friendship-foundation is greatly tested because of their present personas and value systems. The narrative delivers tension between the two, when Efraim continually pushes the previously-mentioned envelope. This takes David down a questionably-moral path, but he buys in, because so much money changes hands and falls into his pockets and duffle bags.
With the evolution of their friendship working on a micro-level, Phillips rips us on a macro-level rollercoaster ride to a few far-reaching places, including Iraq and Albania. He films these locales (which are actually in Morocco, El Centro, California and Romania) with great polish and care, as bleak deserts and decrepit, rusted warehouses look purposely miserable and dank, respectively, on the big screen. Efraim and the newly-trained David circle the globe and negotiate millions of dollars with government officials and other parties who are not necessarily official. In the process, Phillips pulls back a curtain and exposes seedy dealings and pallets of cold, hard cash and lets us watch two 20-something kids fake it until they make it.
In one precarious sequence, a Jordanian driver named Marlboro (Shaun Toub) drives the pair from Jordan to Bagdad to deliver the “product”. Since Iraq is a war zone, the trip seems incredibly risky. Marlboro, however, says it will be safe and gives them a 50/50 chance of making through it alive.
This particular trip through the desert symbolizes their relationship, because even though they both fear for their lives, Efraim pushes to make the journey a reality, while David simply finds himself in perilous circumstances.
The solid supporting cast members - including de Armas, Kevin Pollak and a special appearance from an actor from “The Hangover” – help round out a well-oiled film. Teller is very good as the straight-man, but this is Jonah Hill’s movie. In his best performance since “Moneyball” (2011), Hill plays Efraim with a serious case of arrested development, a complicated, sleazy bravado and an occasional stoner-laugh which generates lots of unexpected giggles and cackles from the audience.
This very funny film also keeps us on edge, and, overall, it feels like a first cousin to the outstanding “Three Kings” (1999). Hey, there’s nothing like having friends and family around when breaking a few rules. (3/4 stars)