Remember when I told you when you first started working for me, the guys that last in this business are the guys who fly straight? Low key, quiet. But the guys who want it all, chicas, champagne, flash, … they don’t last.
The real Efraim Diveroli apparently loves the movie SCARFACE and, in particular, Al Pacino’s portrayal of the amoral, coke-snorting, Miami mobster who has ambition to spare. But he must have missed the scene where Frank Lopez warns Tony Montana about the perils of flying too close to the sun. The same can be said of director Todd Phillips (THE HANGOVER trilogy). His new film, WAR DOGS, which is based on the true story of Diveroli and his best friend from high school, David Packouz, doesn’t do justice to the source material and delivers a weak facsimile of what could have been a guns and ammo version of THE BIG SHORT. Instead, he created a cross between BILL & TED’S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE and GOODFELLAS.
WAR DOGS is based on a 2011 article in Rolling Stone magazine by Guy Lawson, who followed it up with the book, “Arms And the Dudes”. The film stars Jonah Hill (the JUMP STREET series) and Miles Teller (WHIPLASH; THE SPECTACULAR NOW) as Diveroli and Packouz respectively, a pair of pot-smoking, coke-snorting, fist-bumping, 20-something bros from Miami who run a small but highly profitable business supplying weapons to the US Army and the allied security forces in Afghanistan during the Bush-Cheney era of America’s War On Terror. Both boys hail from Orthodox Jewish families but the rabbinic spirit never seemed to find them. (Packouz’s father is a rabbi as is one of Diveroli’s uncles.) Diveroli dropped out of school at age 14 and went to Los Angeles to work in his uncle’s business selling supplies (and I don’t mean pens and staplers) to police departments across California. After a few years, he split with his uncle and returned to Miami where he took over his father’s shell company, AEY, Inc., and began fulfilling small government procurement contracts for the US military. By 18, he was a millionaire.
Back home, he met up again with Packouz, who was working both as a masseur to the city’s rich and bored, and selling high quality bed sheets to retirement homes, neither of which was very lucrative. Diveroli hired Packouz, who proved himself very useful in scouring the FedBizOpps website (fbo.gov) for small government contracts that no one had noticed or, if they had, they were too small for large defense contractors like Lockheed Martin or Raytheon to care about. (In an effort to deflect some of the criticism that large companies like Halliburton were getting rich from the war, the Bush government encouraged small businesses like AEY to compete. It was not unlike the mortgage-backed securities boom but for gun dealers.) Between 2003 and 2008, AEY was awarded and executed on more than 150 contracts with the US government. The boys were rolling in the green, buying themselves high-performance sports cars, oceanfront luxury apartments and plenty of cocaine in the process.
Diveroli and Packouz could have continued on just fine as they were but, like Scarface, they wanted more than they could handle and that was their downfall. When they were awarded a US$300 million contract to supply ammunition to the Afghan security forces (which would have netted them close to US$75 million), the logistics of fulfilling it swamped them. Eventually they were convicted of fraud, which was probably all that the government wanted to charge them with in order to avoid a scandal.
Similar in style to GOODFELLAS, Packouz serves as the narrator on his and Diveroli’s not-so-excellent adventure. Director Phillips gives us chapter breaks (which are annoying in their lack of subtlety), freeze frames and a Top 40 ’60s & ’70s rock soundtrack (which is anachronous considering the events take place in the 2000s). He is no Scorsese though, and the film is wildly uneven in its pacing. The story, too, is highly fictionalized, which is a shame. Just read the Rolling Stone article and you’ll know that the real version of events is better. The guys never went to Iraq and I doubt that Diveroli would have been so stupid or so arrogant as to wear his chai (חי) necklace in a Muslim country. Rather, I think Phillips was trying to make another connection to the movie SCARFACE, as Frank Lopez was always sporting a very garish chai necklace. Ralph Slutzky (admirably played by Kevin Pollak), an Orthodox Jew who was the financial backer of AEY, was also created for the film. The boys’ real backer was Ralph Merrill, who is a Mormon from Utah. Equally fictional is Iz (Ana de Armas), David’s girlfriend, though I suspect she was invented as a parallel to GOODFELLAS wife, Karen Hill. Both chose to believe their men’s lies as long as they could live the high life. Karen, though, had much more mettle, which makes Iz, the story’s principal female character, a throwaway.
Both (Jonah) Hill’s and Teller’s performances are fine, though not memorable, which they could have been with a better script and a better director. Phillips pal, Bradley Cooper, pulls double duty as one of the film’s producers and as an actor in an extended cameo playing a shady arms dealer whose previous business dealings have put him on Homeland Security’s radar. Someone should make a movie about his character.
WAR DOGS is an entertaining film but it’s not as good as it could have and should have been. Go see it; you’ll probably enjoy it. Then watch GOODFELLAS (again) and you’ll see how similar they are and how inferior this film is.
Keep your eyes out for two people — the real David Packouz, who plays a singer in one of the retirement homes, and Barry Livingston (young Ernie Douglas from the 1960s TV show, MY THREE SONS), who plays a buyer for the Pentagon.
Listen to the review online on Radio 4. (Click on the link. Select Part 2 and slide the time bar over to 32:40.)
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