If you’ve seen Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas” from 1990 then you have seen the grand template that has been emulated and downright stolen as an influence by dozens of crime/scandal/seedy underworld films for a quarter-century now and counting.  Stephanie Merry of The Washington Post outlined a sampling of those culprits in 2015.  The article’s list of rip-offs includes the crime works of Quentin Tarantino and titles like “American Hustle,” “Boogie Nights,” and “Blow.”  Go ahead and throw in “Lord of War,” “Rounders,” “Fight Club,” “The Big Short,” and Scorsese’s own recapitulation “The Wolf of Wall Street” too. 

Granted, it’s a formula that is proven to work, but you know the tropes: excessive narration, ordinary people getting rich or powerful doing extraordinary and often illegal activities played by colorful actors or actresses, dramatic license spinning a likely lesser true story, a kicking period soundtrack, pervasive drug use, freeze-frame shots to stamp moments, and a tidy epilogue of comeuppance.  Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but it is also lazily standing on the shoulders of giants.  That’s the impact and existence of Todd Phillips’s “War Dogs” in a gun… err… nutshell. 

“War Dogs” has all of the template ingredients and beats them to death.  You have two ordinary characters, Efraim Diveroli and David Packouz, a pair of Jewish stoner buddies from Miami played by two colorful performers in Jonah Hill and Miles Teller.  The “Whiplash” star is your overdone and ever-present voiceover of the all things obvious.  When David is at a breaking point of dead-end jobs and unplanned fatherhood with his gorgeously virtuous young wife Iz (Ana de Armas), Efraim, his old friend from childhood, comes rolling back to Florida and the two rekindle old times.  Efraim grooms David as his new partner for his modest firearms business.  Efraim’s AEY, Inc. sifts through the U.S. Government’s voluminous and openly public website of defense trades and contracts that are up for bidding.

Now with two men reading between the web-surfing lines and a silent partner (Kevin Pollack) keeping things somewhat legitimate on the surface, the boys of AEY get rich fast building easy profits on small deals, even going to far as personally running guns through Iraqi desert.  Loving the lifestyle and the power, AEY leaps into major weapons contracting in a matter of months.  Building contacts (represented by a composite character played by Bradley Cooper) with access to massive stockpiles of former Cold War weapons and munitions spread through Eastern Europe, Efraim and David buy low and sell high looking for the big score.  It’s only a matter of time before the greed intoxicates, the luck of legality runs out, or the moral stomach stops swallowing the evils being profited.

Charisma is not one of the film’s hindrances.  Jonah Hill and Miles Teller are appealing enough to make their weak material sizzle from time to time.  Their brash banter is often as irresistible as it is detestable, given the sleazy characters.  The spurts of action and comedy do draw the right and desired responses to fit the satire and cautionary tale vibes.  One could argue that half of that laugh you give one of those bright spots is made of snickering recognition to the better film or source being mugged.  You laugh because you know better and acknowledge the cheapness.

It is unfortunate that a ripe true story gilded in Rolling Stone magazine glory gets such lackadaisical treatment.  It is the second scandal movie of 2016 (after Lance Armstrong-centered “The Program”) to hit its closing credits with the bluntly overt symbolism of Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows.”  Too many narrative moments and tonal chords feel completely unoriginal from Todd Phillips and company.  In order to stand out of the shadow of the “Goodfellas” template, the challenge of “War Dogs” should have been to find its own creative style or cut deeper with a more compelling sense of hard truth.  Begging to be “Lord of War” wrapped in “The Wolf of Wall Street” with wannabe “Scarface” worship for kiss-the-ring Miami measure, “War Dogs” can only sniff at its predecessors and inspirations.  

LESSON #1: THE BUSINESS AND ECONOMY OF WAR—Pulling back the curtain, as these types of movies romantically do, the true exploits of giving millions of dollars to clowns like Efraim and David are your hard-earned tax dollars at work funding the largest business and chunk of the American economy, namely the War on Terror and defense.   The money to pay for the head-to-toe weaponry and gear for a single American soldier isn’t raised at a lemonade stand by the U.S. government.  They are paying people who are making ungodly money profiting on war.  Efraim and David are two of hundreds of such businessmen. 

LESSON #2: WHO DO LIES CONVINCE?—In true stubborn and advisory fashion, everything Efraim and David build is based on lies they tell their buyers, sellers, partners, families, and themselves.  They lie to get the best deal and hustle the system and the clients.  They lie to others to line their own pockets.  Worst of all they lie to their ideals in order to justify making money in a dirty business.  At some point, the lies pile up and you can’t convince those around you anymore who have called you on one too many of them.