'War': What Is It Good For? A Laugh

As a Middle-Eastern conflict critique, War, Inc.'s boldness in execution doesn't match its limited depth; but, as a blend between zestful satire and zany verbal slapstick, it entertains unlike many others of its kind. Richard Kelly tried to achieve similar results with his heady misfire Southland Tales, a film rife with consumerist pokes and societal tomfoolery, but murky concept development halted its potential. This John Cusack vehicle doesn't try to be the smartest war farce out there, but it does take all of its ideas -- spoof, wit, and concept alike -- and slickly blends them together into a rowdy, entertaining-as-hell satirist comedy that came up as quite the under-appreciated surprise.

War, Inc., directed by Joshua Seftel, operates much like an alternate-universe sequel to the sharp black comedy Grosse Pointe Blank, only with a neo-political edge that blends Kelly's Southland Tales' American-dystopian societal concepts with Lord of War's grasp on dark militant humor. It features John Cusack (High Fidelity) as stealth assassin Brand Hauser, a hotsauce-chugging, jittery ball of nerves on assignment to knock out an oil minister in the occupied Middle-Eastern country of Turaqistan. "Occupied" has taken a different meaning in this crumbled future location, meaning ownership lies with wealthy corporation-funded military operations, as it adorns this dusty town with advertisements, trigger-happy mercenaries with the Hallibur - erm, I mean Tamerlane's company bright red logo on their shoulders, and profit-turning ventures like fast-food restaurant chains -- and Hauser's on retainer of sorts for the company. He's undercover with assistance from his liaison / secretary (Joan Cusack, Working Girl) as a trade show coordinator embedded into Turaqistan's crumbled core, though he shares no real interest in working at all with the show -- which essentially totes the message of Tamerlane's capitalist growth.

Portrayal of the gaudy marketing-laden Turaqistan landscape becomes the first target for mockery to fall underneath War, Inc.'s crosshairs. It's an environment saturated by marketing bits and pieces from sand to sky, including classic scene involving Coca-Cola signage and fast-food restaurants. Here starts the critique on enterprising in War, Inc., a theme that the film blasts at full volume without much timidity -- as well as consciousness for audience threshold. They make no bones, bits, and pieces about the fact that they're illustrating pseudo-American occupation as profiteering, even going to far as to slap a poilitical-corporate bigwig at the front of its cause. Though it's bold, it's also sharp and conscientious enough to make these ideas very, very funny.

To balance this, cinematographer Zoran Popovic makes certain that all these false contours, perfect angular architecture, and bold color schemes lock our eyes in unwavering engagement. But even with the cinematographer's slick eye for mock-Kubrick symmetry and Children of Men style dilapidation photography around Turaqistan, it's still clearly a character comedy filmed in similar ways as other Cusack films -- with quipping dialogue and exaggerated up-close and personal humor. There's another interesting paradox at play in his visual design: product placement. Popeye's fried chicken, Hummer H3s (you know, the little ones), and shiny new Nokia camera tech adorn the streets of Tamerlane-occupied city ruins, yet they become more of a mockery of glitz-and-glamour consumerism instead of appearing desirable -- kind of like Hannibal Lecter endorsing steak sauce. Normally, this extensive exploitation of an idea, especially one rooted in the discomforting image of a bright red corporate logo plastered everywhere, might clutter the film with unnecessary levels of instigation. Somehow, that wasn't the case for War, Inc.

Instead, it all crafts a farcical outlook on serious government and corporate policies that's an absolute riot to soak in, both for the wild saturation of Western excesses and for its darting comedic timing with Cusack in the foreground. He's nailed down that jumpy nice-guy-doing-not-so-nice personality that pops up in a lot of his "darker" characters, assassin or not. War, Inc. doesn't differ, especially considering the fact that Cusack has such an easy template to duplicate with Martin Blank. As a co-writer on War, Inc., also responsible for two of his previous well-written films (Grosse Pointe Blank, High Fidelity), he succeeds in applying a filtered stream-of-dialogue to Brand Hauser that displays strong consciousness of his strengths and weaknesses. Cusack's resident nice-guy assassin performance was pretty darn enjoyable in '97, and hasn't lost its rhythm to this point. Like many on-stage duos playing the same characters, he and his sister Joan know what attributes work for each other respectfully -- and exploit them to varying degrees, sometimes making them come off as mildly cartoonish when pushed too hard.

But in this dystopian environment of saccharine mockery swordplay, that over-the-top flavor keeps their characters humorous and exciting. This indulgent projection trickles over into War, Inc.'s stellar supportive cast, from the surprisingly affective Spears/Aguilera parody mishmash named Yonnika Babyyeah (Hillary Duff, A Cinderella Story) to the eerily accurate ghosting of Dick Cheney in Dan Aykroyd's pseudo-V for Vendetta projection of Mr. Vice President. Their over-embellished rhythms make certain to remind the audience that this is, in fact, a situational comedy and not quite the same kind of significant satire as the likes of Dr. Strangelove. Heck, even Ben Kingsley (House of Sand and Fog) gets in on the spectacle of it all as a government-esque overseer to Hauser that, I swear, sounds like he's evoking Matthew McConaughey through vocal tone and demeanor.

Yet, it's Marisa Tomei's (My Cousin Vinny) sharp-edged delivery as Hauser's journalist love-interest Natalie that anchors this chaos to pseudo-reality, dragging the Tobasco-blooded Hauser a little further away from his bleak neuroses. She adds a sense of normalcy to a little universe that begins to seem surreal in its paralleling techniques with modern practice, culture, the works. War, Inc.'s sprawling effort still seems to work better as an overblown punchline laced with socio-analytical approaches than as a full-throttle study of war-torn corporate dissension, yet it cleverly finds a way to rustle up explosive entertainment to burst between both extremes -- such as the chaos surrounding Hauser's cookie-cutter relationship with Natalie, surprisingly reminiscent of Cusack and Minnie Driver's rhythm in Grosse Pointe. There's an almost infinite level of political arena festivities that can cloud the big picture confetti-style in War, Inc.; but, strangely, this steady stream of material manages to amplify the few moments of waking reflection that sneak into this potent and riotous comedy.


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