I didn’t think this looked promising. The trailer made it look like the type of film we’ve seen hundreds of times. The director is Todd Phillips, who’s done a number of unfunny comedies (Road Trip, Starsky & Hutch, Due Date, and the last two Hangover films). He did a few comedies that worked (Project X, Old School, and the first Hangover). Who would’ve thought he was ready for a serious film? But…he took a page out of the Adam McKay playbook (McKay went from wacky Will Ferrell comedies to Oscar gold with The Big Short), Now, that doesn’t mean when you’re watching this you won’t think about Casino, Goodfellas, American Hustle, Boiler Room, and Scarface (you’ll have to think of Scarface, as a poster of Pacino shooting people hangs on the wall of an office).
So, if you take Jonah Hill’s number crunching character from Moneyball and combine it with his druggie wacko character from The Wolf of Wall Street…that’s who he plays here as Efraim Diveroli. He and David Packouz (Miles Teller, who should’ve gotten a nomination for Whiplash) are arms dealers, and best bros. After Efraim comes to town for a funeral, these childhood friends are reunited. Since David (who is also doing an unnecessary narration) hates his job giving old men massages and trying to sell high-end bed sheets he bought in bulk…he was just itching to do something else. And since he always looked up to Efraim’s craziness, it’s the perfect match. Of course, we can all see this is going to go south. One of my pet peeves in movies with characters as crazy as Efraim is that nobody does anything about it early on. For example, there’s a scene where Efraim offers a woman $1,000 for a BJ in a nightclub. Her boyfriend punches him out. The bros end up at a greasy spoon, and as he’s nursing his wounds, he shouts at the waitress. At that point I’m wondering why David doesn’t run the opposite direction from what he’s seen that evening. He can’t possibly think those actions are cool, and if he does, well…he deserves everything that comes his way.
This story was based on a Rolling Stone article called Arms and the Dudes (which would’ve been a much more intriguing movie title). Phillips, along with Jason Smilovic and Stephen Chin, did a great job adapting it. The movie might have the usual tropes a film like this has (chapter titles, narration, angry wives that find out the truth, people stuffed in car trunks), but there wasn’t a second I was bored and many times, I was on the edge of my seat.
David’s wife (the beautiful Ana de Armas) isn’t given a lot to do, but hey…this is a story about the arms dudes in 2005. Efraim found a way to make money on the internet. It’s the fact that the government puts bids on a website when they need to buy weapons, ammo, body armor, etc. As Efraim explains, in going for the low-end bids that others are ignoring, “I’m getting the crumbs. I’m like a rat.”
When they end up scoring a $300 million contract from the government (in a very funny scene, which you’ve probably seen a bunch of times in the ads), they get in over their heads.
It’s so refreshing to see a movie where you feared the best parts were in the commercials; another one of those scenes being the “triangle of death,” in which they have to drive their weapons from Jordan into Iraq, and they’re shot at along the way. It was easily the best use of a vehicle about to run out of gas that you’ll ever see.
One of the pleasant surprises was the humor, which worked so well. A lot of times, that is the weak point with a film like this. Yet you’re constantly laughing. That could be when you see a joke coming (like the time some local drug dealers try to rip Efraim off), or when they’re just throw away lines that are hysterical (Efraim telling a translator, to tell somebody in another country he will give him $100 for his sunglasses, and to “Tell him that in gibberish.”).
As a music lover, it’s always great to hear the soundtrack Phillips puts together for his films. The movie started off with James Gang’s (Joe Walsh) Funk #49, and we got cool tunes from Aerosmith, Iggy Pop, Dean Martin, Rufus Thomas, and Wolfmother. They could’ve left off the Blue Oyster Cult. And as my girlfriend said to me when they played “Jump Around” by House of Pain, “Why do so many movies use this song?”
I wondered the same thing when we saw the military helicopters and heard CCR’s “Fortunate Son.” I can name 10 movies that used that tune, most recently Suicide Squad.
And are we really supposed to believe that David works out listening to Vanilla Fudge in his headphones? Even people around in the ‘60s aren’t listening to Vanilla Fudge. It was a lot more believable when Efraim was cranking out the Beastie Boys “So What’cha Want.”
The cinematography (Lawrence Sher) is great, especially the scenes in the desert (conveniently filmed in California, not in the Middle East).
Philip’s also brought his Hangover star Bradley Cooper to play an arms dealer that’s on a terrorist watch list. His scenes work well.
The cast all has great chemistry, and this is a solid script. After seeing such a great trailer for Suicide Squad and being disappointed…this was a trailer that looked intriguing, and a movie that was so much better than expected.
It gets 4 stars out of 5.