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War, Inc. (review)

Democracy, Bitches

No extras on the War, Inc. DVD? Really? I was so hoping for something — a commentary track, a making-of — that would help me understand why this seeming can’t-miss satire misses. Something about the film has been nagging me since I first saw it earlier this year, when it debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival, something unsatisfying and unfinished about it, and even now, even after a second viewing on the DVD just out , I can’t quite put my finger on it.
The logical extension from 1997’s Grosse Pointe Blank — cowritten, as War, Inc. was, by star John Cusack (Igor, Martian Child) — this one posits a near-future world in which “great corporations,” the opening crawl tells us, “bestride the earth, replacing nations as the true creators of history, amassing powerful private armies to do their bidding.” And that could be the beginning of the problem, right there in the beginning: there ain’t much actual satire in this satire. Hello, Halliburton? Hello, Blackwater? We’re already living in this world, and as hired killer Brand Hauser (Cusack) arrives in the bombed-to-hell backwater of Turaqistan — recently, ahem, liberated from being non-American nonconsumers by the multinational corp Tamerlane — the nonsatire continues to roll out. Hauser’s been assigned by Tamerlane to assassinate an oil sheik from a neighboring country who’s threatening the new oil contracts Tamerlane is lining up, and his cover is as the marketing and PR expert running the “Brand USA expo,” during which pieces of Turaqistan’s infrastructure will be sold off to the highest corporate bidders while the hearts and minds of the natives will simultaneously be forcibly colonized by fast-food chains, cell-phone suppliers, purveyors of kitchen gadgets, and everyone else salivating at the prospect of new customers.

It’s not that there aren’t moments of real cleverness here. The Tamerlane goodie bags Hauser distributes to all Turaqistani comers are horrifying little gift-wrapped microcosms of the aggressive capitalism on offer. Tanks with ads slapped on their sides? Brilliant. The Arab pop queen (played, rather wonderfully, actually, by Hilary Duff: Cheaper by the Dozen 2, Raise Your Voice) fellating a gas pump nozzle in her stage show is a shock, and an appropriate one, and the idea of her fame and public bitchiness as a high-water mark for the arrival of democracy is a nice bit of snark.

But the film is as weary with its own irony as Hauser is supposed to be; Cusack’s Hauser spends the entire running time moping about how empty his work is, which feels at odds with the darkly snappy spirit the rest of the film appears to be trying to evoke. And Marisa Tomei’s (Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, Wild Hogs) angry journalist — the only reporter on the scene who hasn’t bought into Tamerlane’s corruption of journalism as, literally, a theme-park ride — feels out of place, too. It’s as if the movie is stuck in a muddy middle, unable to go whole hog with its sending up of toxic Americana and unwilling to be serious about exploring how toxic it really is. It’s fine to throw around words like branding, synergy, and privatization like they’re war crimes, and it’s fine to be raging and bitter about it, but go all the way, or don’t start down the path at all.

MPAA: rated R for violence, language and brief sexual material

viewed at home on a small screen

official site | IMDb