War, Inc. (UK - DVD R2)
Leigh Riding takes a look at this John Cusack political satire from Lionsgate
War, Inc. is a broad political satire set in fictionalised Middle Eastern Turaquistan, in a time where corporate structures rule and wars are outsourced. Touraquistan is currently occupied by Tamerlane, owned by the former vice president (Dan Aykroyd). In order to remove a major player, assassin Brand Hauser (John Cusack) is hired to pose as the organiser of a large conference. Things don't go smoothly however, as elements such as a Turaquistanian pop star (Hilary Duff), an intrepid radical journalist (Marisa Tomei), and a former associate and ex-CIA man (Ben Kingsley), all appear to make Hauser's job as difficult as possible.
The American political satire is rather rare these days. It's a tricky genre to tackle and a lofty bar to raise (I mean, where can you really go from Strangelove?), and they generally end up rather tame and toothless, such as the softly-softly Wag The Dog. War, Inc. is, if anything, closest to Dr. Strangelove in the respect that it has a broad, absurdist streak that sets itself apart from more recent entries in the genre. It's a comic book of a film, filled with performances a mile wide, daffy images such as military vehicles with company logos and advertising plastered on the sides, and ludicrous sequences like the fight scene that takes place in the back of a garbage truck. The film has no problem pointing a large, cartoonish arrow at its targets, and when it hits the mark the satire really works, but there are far too many elements to make the film completely successful.
War Inc. isn't content to simply punch away at its subject matter. The script (written by Cusack himself) manages to shoehorn in a romantic sub plot with himself and Tomei, and also ends boiling the plot down into a crackpot action movie, which tends to distil the purpose of the movie somewhat. I guess the intention was to make the film appeal to a wider demographic by making it a ride as opposed to a lecture, but as the film pretty much bypassed cinemas, it didn't help too much. As a result, what we are left with is a concoction of a film that works on each individual level, but becomes a slight fudge when tied together.
While the film tries to do too many things at once, it's undeniably well written by Cusack. While he has said in the press that it contains the same 'spirit' (probably so he doesn't get sued by Disney), it's easy to see the film as a semi-sequel to his earlier Grosse Pointe Blank. His Brand Hauser shares many similarities to Martin Blank, as yet again he plays an assassin with issues who is sidelined by a budding romance. However, fans expecting to find a film with the same heart and character will probably be left wanting, as those elements are replaced with caricature.
The cast do rise to the occasion, with everybody giving one hundred and ten percent in the energy stakes. After a string of lacking performances in dreck such as The Contract, Cusack brings his A game to this. He plays the conflicted, sardonic killer to a tee, his cynical humour is razor sharp again, and he again brings his little seen action chops to the screen with much gusto and enthusiasm. Cusack is obviously fired up for this role, and it's his best turn since at least 1408. His sister Joan is also having a ball in this one, Dan Aykroyd shines in a relatively small but key role, surprisingly Hilary Duff delivers the goods as a Saudi version of Britney, and Marisa Tomei is perfectly fine for the most part, but seems to become lost once the film turns into an action movie. However Ben Kingsley should quite frankly be stripped of his Oscar for his shocking performance, or if not that extreme, have his knighthood taken away for the atrocious Texan accent he forces upon the viewer.
While all the elements are there within the cast, it would seem that they are handicapped by the director. Although the film attempts to be visually large, Joshua Seftel seems to lack the eye to make its obviously thin budget work. It's an independent film, but it does contain some large and impressive sets, and in the hands of a more imaginative helmer, the comic book style would give the sets a suitably widescreen vista. Sadly, Seftel shoots everything rather flat, occasionally letting the film resemble a television production, and he shows a particular lack of grace during the many special effect and greenscreen sequences. This makes the later shift in style to action jarring, as it's so obviously shot by a more visually accomplished second unit (the fight co-ordinator for the film is the legendary Benny 'The Jet' Urquidez). For what it's worth in a film like this where the subject is king, the fight sequences are solid and well shot, most notably the scene featuring Cusack kicking seismic arse in a style similar to the locker room sequence in, you guessed it, Grosse Pointe Blank. This might be a issue driven film concerned with foreign policy and warmongering for profit, but you simply can't beat John Cusack spitting a bad guy's bitten off fingers back in his face. That's what I think was missing from Thank You for Smoking, I can tell you.
While the direction is rather bungled, it fails to deflate the cinematic soufflé on offer in War, Inc. Yes, it wants to be about five films at once, but they're all entertaining movies in their own way. The most important element is the satire, and thankfully that's what shines through the most, with enough bite to make the project worth making. It's just a shame that the project wasn't guided with a steadier hand, but on the whole War, Inc. entertains due to the sheer enthusiasm on display. Definitely worth a watch.
Lionsgate offer War, Inc.in its original 2.35:1 image, but it's not a transfer to shout from the rooftops about. It's a clean transfer with no noticeable defects and little in the way of grain. The image is sharp for the most part, but there are occasional shots that could definitely do with a little fine tuning. For such a cartoonish movie with an obviously strong palette, the colours seem a little washed out, but there is very little in the way of colour clash to compensate and at least flesh tones are decent. Blacks are solid enough but not as deep as I'd like. To be fair, the film itself is rather flat and uninspired in the first place, so I don't suppose we should expect miracles. The best way to describe the transfer is underachieving.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 track is quietly impressive. It's not a window rattler by any stretch of the imagination, but all of the elements serve the film nicely. The all important dialogue is right there where you want it to be, and sits really well in the mix. The score also sits well in the mix, never swelling too much and overbearing the rest of the track. Ambient effects also fare well, moving nicely around the surrounds. Action and activity use the surrounds superbly, with gunfire and jet engines flying around the room, and kicks and punches thumping that sub nicely. It's a fine track, and fares much better than the image transfer.
The disc features a solitary extra, a twelve minute making of that packs in quite a few talking heads, but contains very little information involving the technical elements of film making, instead focusing on the cast. This is fine, but the whole thing is edited into such tiny sound bites that it feels like a patched together EPK for a backwater film festival. Not impressive or informative, but we get more than the region one disc, so there.
War, Inc. is a solid yet scattershot political satire that tries to aim for a more widespread commercial appeal, and on the whole it hits the mark. While there are occasional hiccups in directorial prowess and odd shifts in genre, the endeavour has a sense of scale that attempts to go beyond the limited funds of independent film making and mostly succeeds. It's really hard to quibble with a flawed film that's so gamely performed by a strong cast armed with a sharp script, and War, Inc. is a witty, screwball satirical movie that also delivers good Friday night entertainment with a liberal dash of crunchy action. Not perfect, but still recommended.
Review by Leigh Riding
Suitable only for persons of 15 years and over
Release Date: 16th March 2009
Disc Type: Single side, dual layer
Audio: English Dolby Digital 5.1
Subtitles: English HoH
Extras: Making of War, Inc.
Easter Egg: No
Director: Joshua Seftel
Cast: John Cusack, Joan Cusack, Marisa Tomei, Hilary Duff, Ben Kingsley, Dan Ackroyd
Length: 102 minutes
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