Life isn’t going as well as young David Packouz (Miles Teller) hoped. He’s stuck offering massages to middle-aged businessmen and wishing for something better. Then his old, rather wild, friend Efraim (Jonah Hill) returns to Miami from LA and offers David an opportunity.
Efraim is using a new government initiative to hopefully get rich. After a few scandals, President George W. Bush has opened up all government contracts to bids from private companies of any size, and that includes defence contracts. Efraim wants David to help him get the smaller arms contracts that the big companies are ignoring. That usually involved helping outfit the Iraqi or Afghani armies rather than the US military itself.
It works out well, with the young men going after larger and larger contracts until they almost luck into what could be the mother-lode, a Cold War stockpile of millions of bullets of the type the Afghan Army needs. Despite being a tiny company with a relatively short track record, they put in a bid for the $300 million contract, but soon discover they’re in over their heads, with problems ranging from shady arms dealers and their bullets possibly being embargoed, to the fact Efraim’s mercenary instincts could end up being destructive for both of them.
This is definitely one of those movies that would seem a bit silly if it weren’t based on a true story, although as the special features attest, some of its more implausible moments are actually true. Miles Teller and Jonah Hill do a good job in their roles, even if Teller is slightly trapped by a rather flat character that the script tries to shelter from the ethical ramifications of what he and Efraim are doing. The result is that sometimes he’s rather smug and the film feels like it’s deliberately trying to do a bit of a song and dance distraction from what he’s really up to. It’s certainly a problem for the movie but it just about gets away with it, largely thanks to Teller’s charm.
Initially it seems Hill has been brought in just to do his usual crazy, over-the-top funnyman shtick. However, as the film goes on it allows him to show a perhaps unexpected and rather creepy menace, bringing real life to a character you begin to believe would do anything to make a few extra bucks, no matter what or who the collateral damage was. Bradley Cooper also shows up for a small but pivotal role, and he too shows a good deal of enigmatic menace.
There are moments when the film tips a little too heavily towards becoming a lecture/polemic on the economics of war and the ridiculousness of parts of US defence contracts, but always manages to pull itself back. It manages to be entertaining, sometimes pretty funny and moves at quite a pace. That’s partly due to director Todd Phillips, who’s best known for broad comedy fare such as The Hangover and Due Date, but here dips into something a little more serious, while still bringing the crazy edge that he’s known for.
Ultimately though, it’s difficult not to be left with the feeling that with so much talent involved and a story that’s ripe for both satire and hard-hitting anger, that the film should have a bit more impact than it does. It certainly makes its points and does so in fairly entertaining fashion, but those points could have hit harder and with slightly more trust in the audience’s intelligence the whole thing could have been a much bigger indictment of both what happened in this case and of the US military’s entire approach to rebuilding after the Iraq and Afghan Wars. It’s a decent enough movie, but it could have been more.
Overall Verdict: An entertaining look at a bizarre true story that’s certainly a fun watch, even if it can’t quite find the tone to really get under the skin of the things it’s angry about.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac