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War, Inc.

The real problem with War, Inc. is that so few people really understand satire, including those trying to write it. Satire is actually a fairly specific art with tools that can be tricky in the hands of those who don’t know how to use them. It can go wrong quite easily, and it isn’t simply “to make fun of something.” War, Inc. follows an assignment given to special operative Brand Hauser (John Cusack) by the giant corporation, Tamerlane, which employs him as an assassin. The assignment is to off Middle Eastern bigwig Omar Sharif in Turaqistan, basically because he is interfering with their profit. In the movie’s version of the very near future, corporations have their own standing armies. The idea being that we are supposedly dropping the farce that corporations do not already control the military. Hauser’s cover is that he is a Tamerlane executive in charge of a "trade show” taking place in Turaqistan. The grand finale for this trade show is a celebrity wedding which will be televised worldwide. The trade show is really a sort of national branding expo, and the wedding is the excuse to mock young, celebrity popstars (despite one character in the movie being played by one).

Marisa Tomei shows up as a journalist looking to expose the evil ways of Tamerlane. From there the movie bounces around the little, bombed out Emerald City of Turaqistan, with Hauser trying to juggle a trade show, an assassination, and a temperamental celebrity with entourage. Well, and he’s got to try to seduce the journalist along the way. Of course, it’s pretty well guaranteed that a great deal of main character inner turmoil comes standard.

Throughout its run, War, Inc. takes shots at everything from the war in Iraq to journalism in general, but it’s walking a very fine line in its approach, and it doesn’t seem to really understand the attempt its making. Even assuming something like satire via hyperbole, at some point you aren't mocking branding anymore, you're just doing a lot of branding. Ads on tanks, and Coke signs being put up atop the rubble of what’s left of a building are nice jabs. Even a GuideStar operator as an onboard therapist isn’t bad. Having a secret bunker under the Popeye’s chicken, not to mention thousands of other examples, is just becoming what you hope to ridicule.

In the end, the movie makes fun of so many things, to such a degree, that it’s hard to tell what it’s really after. It’s also hard to tell if it turns out to be truly holding anything up for legitimate scorn. In the attempt to lambast the military powers that be, for example, several scenes seem to clearly turn an ugly corner toward mocking the soldiers themselves. That’s a strange road to travel, and one (among many) which throws a curious light over the whole affair. You cannot help but soon wonder at the exact position behind the effort.

The general effect of the film is made more curious by John Cusack as simple fact. He’s good here, and I can’t help liking him, but it is always an open question with him to wonder if what he’s doing can seriously be called acting. He’s playing some version of the character from Say Anything, as always, which is to say he seems to just be playing John Cusack. Whether or not that works in general is question, but whether that character works here is more pressing. It’s hard to distinguish the role from the one he played in Grosse Pointe Blank, but that was a much different overall effort. Here the character, while interesting, seems distinctly at odds with the play he’s a part of.

Somehow, after all that, it’s hard to say it’s a bad movie. It’s confusing, and perhaps misguided, but tolerable and better than many. Parts of it are entertaining, and Hilary Duff is enjoyable (yet occasionally creepy) as the Middle East’s popstar sensation Yonica Babyyeah.

In trying to work out what position this film was actually hoping to put forward, I was repeatedly reminded of two quotes: “Sufficiently advanced political correctness is indistinguishable from sarcasm.” (Erik Naggum) and “When a man says to me, ‘I have the intensest love of nature,’ at once I know that he has none.” (Ralph Waldo Emerson). I put those two quotes out there, because I think you could argue that movie simply goes too far. It isn't making fun of the war anymore. It's making fun of making fun of the war. War, Inc. is exactly the sort of movie that demands special features on its DVD release, but has none. The lack of any effort here calls into question whether or not the thing was at all serious in the first place. Couple this with the fact that this is director Joshua Seftel’s first foray outside the realm of documentaries, and the lack of features is strange indeed. When someone with long experience as a documentarian makes a film purporting to make some statement, and then delivers nothing, things are strange.

Moreover, John Cusack has producing, writing, and starring credits, and can’t get anything on the DVD. I find it hard to suggest that commentary tracks are necessities, and I’m not sure that format lends itself to anything all that interesting here, but some manner of featurette discussing the viewpoint and effort of the film might at least lend a bit of credence to the overall package.

The barebones release leaves a bad taste in your mouth, and it goes beyond just leaving the featureless void. The picture is often not that great, and the sound can get pretty muddled as soon as something blow up and a lot of things blow up.

Looking very nice, however, are the trailers and promotions for other films. The Contract, King of California, Day of the Dead, Two Tickets to Paradise, Blood Brothers, Meet Bill, and Sukiyaki Western Django all get good treatment. I don’t just mean that those trailers are available on the disc either. They are nicely packaged, displayed almost as though they were special features, and look better than the film itself. Considering the substance War, Inc. wants to shove at me, I think it’s rather bold that the best parts of the product are the ads for other products.