By Kathryn Whitney Boole

“War Dogs” is based on a true story. In his March 2011 article called “Arms and the Dudes,” published in Rolling Stone Magazine, Guy Lawson details how dysfunction and corruption in the U.S. Defense Department in the early 2000s led to two slick yet naïve young salesmen becoming gun runners for the U.S. Armed Forces.

“War Dogs” is a gripping, sometimes funny, “fish-out-of-water” expose, yet it covers a decidedly serious subject. Director Todd Phillips is best known for “The Hangover” and “The Hangover Part II.” Directing a thriller as a comedy veteran works well, as we saw last year with “The Big Short.” The resulting style expertly blends the high action of a thriller with unexpected comedic moments.

The movie takes some literary license when telling the story — not every detail is portrayed exactly as it happened. However, the heart of the tale is clear. The action takes place during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, under the administration of George W. Bush (and Dick Cheney). The inefficiency and lack of oversight of the government in dealing with the supply chain of weapons and ammunition to the U.S. Armed Forces laid the groundwork for this surreal escapade. The monopoly of the main supplier of weapons had been broken up, with no system set up to replace the supply protocol. Suddenly anyone could sell weapons to the US military. Our two protagonists, being opportunistic salesmen, seized the moment.

The film was shot in Romania, Miami, El Centro, California (across the border from Mexicali), Las Vegas and Morocco. The sets by production designer Bil Brzeski and cinematography by Lawrence Sher evoke the bleak environments of war-torn countries that lend a stark contrast to the lush locale of upscale Miami, home to the two salesmen. The soundtrack by Cliff Martinez is an excellent lineup of popular music from the time, matched well with the action and emotion of each scene.

Aside from being an action film, “War Dogs” is also a character study of the two salesmen. Miles Teller plays David Packouz, the more reasonable and naïve of the two. Teller expertly lets the changes in Packhouz’s comprehension of situations mature as his character processes his experiences and grows from them. Jonah Hill’s character, Efraim Diveroli, is full of bravado and perceived fearless instinct. He seems forever rooted in the brash personality he developed in middle school. That goes only so far for an arms dealer, as you will see. Young Cuban actress Ana de Armas brings emotional intensity to the role of “Iz”, Packouz’s wife. Her character is the grounded soul who becomes Packouz’s link to reality. Bradley Cooper’s Henry Girard is on screen only briefly, a pivotal Godfather figure, mysterious, powerful and shrewd, who remains far outside of the action. Cooper’s skill as an actor allows him to create a complex man — who may be driven by pure evil — or maybe not.

“War Dogs” is worth seeing not only as an entertaining film. It’s also a window into a little known and discomforting piece of modern U.S. history.

Rated R. 114 minutes. 

Kathryn Whitney Boole has spent most of her life in the entertainment industry, which is the backdrop for remarkable adventures with extraordinary people. She is a Talent Manager with Studio Talent Group in Santa Monica. Reach her at kboole@gmail.com. For previously published reviews, see https://kwboole.wordpress.com.