The adventures of the Bush administration have, it seems, driven John Cusack a little crazy, just as they drove Richard Kelly far enough around the bend to make his much-maligned epic Southland Tales. Perhaps these men have found a workable response, if not the only one, to current events: broad satire sprinkled heavily with glitzy disgust. War, Inc., written by Cusack along with Jeremy Pikser (Bulworth) and the postmodernist novelist Mark Leyner, doesn’t even pretend to buy into American warfare in the Middle East as remotely ennobling or democracy-inspiring. Tonally, this farce is all over the place, getting easy laughs from official doublespeak about new prosthetic limbs (“Just another breathtaking example of how American know-how alleviates the suffering it creates”) and then choking our laughter off. The business of war is serious even when it’s funny, and vice versa.
War, Inc. could almost be a default sequel to Grosse Pointe Blank, 1997’s witty, jet-black comedy about hit-man Martin Blank and his struggle to regain his humanity at his ten-year class reunion. Here, Cusack is Brand Hauser, a government assassin tasked to whack an oil baron who wants to run a pipeline through (fictional) Turaqistan and drink some of America’s milkshake. Brand is given a cover story: he’ll be organizing the arrival and media opportunities of rising Turaqi pop star Yonica Babyyeah (Hilary Duff, sullying her squeaky-clean persona impressively). Plaguing Brand’s existence are this movie’s Minnie Driver, leftist reporter Natalie Hegalhuzen (Marisa Tomei), who wants the full story on what Brand is doing in Turaqistan, and this movie’s Joan Cusack, hard-bitten assistant Marsha Dillon (played by … Joan Cusack), who wants Brand to ice the target already so they can all go home.
Add in an appearance by Dan Aykroyd as the amiably venal vice-president and a Joe Strummer-esque score by David Robbins (brother of Cusack’s buddy Tim) and you really do have Martin Blank Goes to War, but as a die-hard fan of GPB, I didn’t care. Cusack’s morose intelligence holds everything together, and he has an agreeably combative rapport with Tomei and a gentler one with Duff, whose Yonica symbolizes how we’re trying to “democratize” the Middle East by Britneyizing and corporatizing it. The movie takes some cues from satires old (Dr. Strangelove) and more recent (Wag the Dog, especially in its barbs at the press for being so easily gulled by the government’s magic show), but its tempo and emphasis are all its own. Joshua Seftel, a documentarian making his narrative feature debut, channels Kubrick as well as Terry Gilliam in his cool fish-eyed-lens assessment of Turaqistan’s chaotic chessboard. By the time we see a tank with a goldenpalace.com banner on its tail, it’s no longer clear where monetary fantasia ends and war-torn reality begins.
War, Inc. is looser than GPB, and makes time for several extended scenes of various characters just sitting around getting to know each other, a welcome respite from what always threatens to become a cartoon. In a dazzlingly brutal dust-up between Brand and some local thugs, Cusack shows he hasn’t lost any of his kickboxing flair, nor his way of looking soulfully stricken when caught in the bloody act by a loved one. In these movies, Cusack is America, abashed by his talent for and background in violence, and eager to escape it — here, Brand constantly chugs hot sauce to burn himself out of awareness (he says he’s trained his tear ducts not to flow when he downs the stuff). People are always consuming in the movie — Yonica has her Popeye’s Chicken (a front for Brand’s shadowy liaison), a soldier chomps on freeze-dried coffee to amp himself up for crowd control. Critics will probably rush to smear War, Inc. as a rehash or irrelevant or even un-American, but it’s a good deal smarter and more satisfying than that — a punk-rock Strangelove riff on a mission very much unaccomplished.