War, Inc. takes aim at such ripe-for-satire targets as the military-industrial complex, privatization of defense contracts and the Iraq War. So far, so promising.
But then a strange thing happens. The moviemakers deftly obliterate a few such easy targets, but they also wreak plenty of collateral damage in the form of overly broad comedy, perplexing tangents and a general lack of focus (the fog of war, perhaps?). A smart bomb here or there would have been effective. Instead, War, Inc. mainly just bombs.
OK, now that I got my tortured metaphors out of the way, let me say the star-studded flick does have glimmers of inspiration in its creation of a near-future where the United States has outsourced a war in a Middle Eastern nation. Embedded war correspondents are treated to "impacted journalism experiences" through IMAX-styled battle footage where the reporters don 3-D glasses and munch popcorn. A chorus line of dancers -- all of them victims of wartime "liberation," we are told -- is composed of women with prosthetic legs. Screenwriters Mark Leyner, Jeremy Pikser and John Cusack (who also stars and co-produced) load War, Inc. with enough ideas to fill a dozen movies. Stuffed into one, however, it smacks of overkill.
Cusack is in his full-on world-weary, hangdog mode as CIA assassin Brand Hauser. Sent by the former vice president (Dan Aykroyd looking suspiciously similar to a certain veep with a penchant for shooting friends in the face) to the fictitious Asian country of Turaqistan, Hauser's assignment there is to kill an oil magnate named Omar Sharif (Lubomir Neikov), who plans to build a pipeline through the region in defiance of Uncle Sam. Meanwhile, the nation is in the midst of a war in which the U.S. has fully outsourced operations to a Halliburton clone called Tamerlane.
Hauser sets up shop in a safe district of Turaqistan dubbed "the Emerald City" -- think the Green Zone -- where his cover is that he is coordinating a Tamerlane trade show. But then he strikes up a flirtation with a sexy left-wing journalist, Natalie Hegalhuzen (Marisa Tomei), and finds himself ensnared in a scandal involving a Middle East pop tart named Yonica Babyyeah (a very game Hilary Duff). It being John Cusack, Hauser's long-dormant conscience begins to awaken with Natalie's help.
The plot is zany (yes, I wrote zany and mean it), frenetic and thoroughly jumbled. That's not a deal-breaker, necessarily. After all, War, Inc. is more interested in its overflowing comic adornments, whether it's the vice president unloading a growler in the toilet or nymphet Yonica Babyyeah shoving scorpions down her crotch. Some of it is amusing. Much of it is not. The filmmakers might be striving for a sort of modern-day Dr. Strangelove, but the end result is closer to the muddled political satire of 1982's Wrong Is Right.
The proceedings feel schizophrenic. John Cusack is all muttering sensitivity, à la Grosse Pointe Blank or High Fidelity, but his demeanor is incongruous when paired up with the spastic mugging of Ben Kingsley as his CIA mentor and Joan Cusack as a caffeinated Tamerlane crony. Only Tomei seems to strike the perfect balance between the two extremes -- but, then again, when isn't she perfect?
Presented in anamorphic widescreen 2.35:1, the picture is a bit compromised by slight grain and combing, particularly in dimly lit scenes.
Viewers can choose between 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround or 2.0 Stereo. The former is definitely the way to go, boasting some aggressive immersive sound for an explosion-laden third act. Optional subtitles are in Spanish and English for the hearing-impaired.
None ... unless you count previews for Meet Bill, Two Tickets to Paradise, King of California, Blood Brothers, Sukiyaki Western Django, The Contract and Day of the Dead.
War, Inc. is an unfocused jumble of a geopolitical satire, but its sheer audacity and wealth of ideas keep things from ever getting boring. Still, it's tough to avoid pondering how the picture could have been so much better with a bit more discipline and focus from the filmmakers. The Iraq War and military-industrial complex obviously lend themselves to sharp political satire, but War, Inc. is akin to playing piano while wearing catcher's mitts.