‘Hangover’ writer-director Todd Phillips returns to Vegas for ‘War Dogs’

Todd Phillips is practically a brand ambassador for Caesars Palace.

After filming “The Hangover” and “The Hangover Part III” at the resort, the writer-director returned to shoot pivotal scenes for his latest movie, “War Dogs.”

“I feel like they should name a suite after me or something,” he jokes.

Opening Friday, “War Dogs” isn’t your typical comedy from Phillips, whose other credits include “Road Trip” and “Old School.” In many ways, it feels like his version of “The Big Short,” the mortgage-crisis best-picture nominee from writer-director Adam McKay, who’d previously been known for “Step Brothers” and the “Anchorman” movies.

For starters, “War Dogs” is based on a sensational true story, in this case 20-something stoners Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill) and David Packouz (Miles Teller), who improbably score a $300 million contract to arm the Afghan military.

It’s also an incredible leap forward in filmmaking for the director as it mixes humor with a troubling expose, in this case, one based on Guy Lawson’s Rolling Stone article “Arms and the Dudes.” As “War Dogs” shows, no-bid military contracts awarded to companies such as Halliburton led to an overcorrection by the Bush administration that opened the door to even more corruption.

And there’s the presence of Caesars Palace. In “The Big Short,” it’s where money manager Mark Baum (Steve Carell) realizes the volume of mortgage defaults could cause the entire global economy to collapse. In “War Dogs,” it’s where Efraim and David, who’d previously lived off the crumbs of other weapons deals “like a rat,” meet legendary arms seller Henry Girard (Bradley Cooper) and get in way more trouble than “The Hangover’s” Wolfpack ever did.

“Vegas, it’s a place where bad decisions get made,” Phillips says. “And in this movie, our two boys make a pretty bad decision getting in business with (Girard) in Las Vegas.”

In town for the international weapons expo VegasX — “It’s like Comic-Con, with grenades,” Teller narrates — David meets Girard at the blackjack table. And while seeing “Hangover” alum Cooper back inside Caesars Palace feels like a blast of nostalgia and a shoutout to fans of that franchise, Phillips insists it wasn’t intended as such.

“Quite frankly, having done ‘The Hangover,’ we pretty much could be invited to shoot at any casino. It’s a lot easier now,” he says. “But I have such loyalty … to Caesars that it would almost feel sacrilegious to be anywhere else.”

During a brief meeting at the hotel’s Rao’s, Efraim and David try to gain Girard’s help in making the leap into the big leagues of arms dealing by securing 100 million rounds of ammunition. For Girard, it’s no problem.

“I can’t spend more than 48 hours in this dump,” Girard tells the duo.

“That’s what I always say,” Efraim responds. “Vegas is a two-day town.”

“I was talking about America,” Girard clarifies, chillingly.

It’s a short, tightly focused scene that could have been filmed anywhere, but Phillips insisted on using the actual restaurant.

“I try to shoot on location as much as possible,” he says. “To me, it’s one of the great thrills and benefits you have of being a director. … But there is something I think when it’s authentic, I feel like it just comes through in the movie. Maybe I overthink it. Maybe we could’ve been on a soundstage. But there is an authenticity to it that I just think is invaluable.”

The other invaluable element in “War Dogs”? Hill, who despite his two Oscar nominations, may never have been better. His Efraim is a force of degenerate nature, a swaggering, manic chameleon capable of almost anything.

He saves his childhood friend David from a life of massaging rich guys in Miami Beach and offers him a life of luxury cars and high-end real estate — along with plenty of coke, weed, strippers and days spent getting high under a “Scarface” poster while wearing night-vision goggles.

But he’s also just as capable of impersonating an Army officer during a phone call to underbid a competitor or, during a crucial negotiation being conducted through an 11-year-old Jordanian interpreter, referring to Arabic as “gibberish.” Needless to say, more than a few laws are broken along the way.

It’s a stellar, anything-can-happen turn in a movie that’s less raucous and filled with more dramatic arcs than you’d expect from Phillips. And it feels like a major breakthrough in the director’s career.

That just wasn’t his intent.

“It wasn’t so much a conscious effort to evolve as a filmmaker,” Phillips reveals. “Although I’m always trying to. … To me, it was just a story that honestly would be fun to tell, and I thought could be kind of impactful at the end of it.”

Contact Christopher Lawrence at clawrence@reviewjournal.com. On Twitter: @life_onthecouch.

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