Sunday, April 18, 2010

War Inc. (Seftel 2008)

(Here is another classic review from my facebook days, while I work on three new reviews for the upcoming week. Enjoy!)

There is no way to talk about War Inc. (Seftel 2008) without talking about Grosse Pointe Blank (Armitage 1997), John Cusack’s cult classic comedy about a hitman who’s most recent job coincides with his high school reunion, for several reasons. First, much of the underlying structures between the two films is similar, as both revolve around their respective protagonists (Hauser in War Inc., Martin Blank in Grosse Pointe Blank) undergoing a transformation from apathetic existence to attempting some form of redemption. Secondly, in both cases Cusack is not only the star of the films, but a co-writer and producer whose influence is easily found in the finished work. Lastly, I have to consider the two films together because Grosse Pointe Blank is one of my all favourite films, which left me with high expectations going into War Inc., given it was acknowledged as being the thematic sequel to the earlier effort by Cusack himself.

To look back on Grosse Pointe Blank is to see a film which is clearly of a specific moment in time. Like many films of this period, including mainstream blockbuster efforts such as Mission Impossible (De Palma 1996) and Goldeneye (Campbell 1995), Grosse Pointe Blank reflects upon the end of the Cold War and the lives of those whose existence was defined by it. Martin Blank (Cusack), a freelance assassin, is in the midst of an identity crisis, questioning his profession and the direction that his life has taken, which has seemingly descended into a form of mindless capitalism as he works for the highest bidder. Worse, this form of greed is in the midst of being organized by fellow hitman Grocer (Dan Aykroyd), transforming the random mass of freelance hitmen into a unionized force so that they can “make more, (and) work less.”

The film’s central premise of Martin’s return to his high school and attempts to reunite with Debi (Minnie Driver), the woman he failed to take to the prom the night he signed up with the army, serves not only as a point of personal reflection but also of a metaphorical political reflection, attempting to look to the Cold War past in order to find a new direction for the country other than unrestrained greed. As Grosse Point Blank ends, it manages to find an optimism that perhaps a change is possible, as Martin and Debi literally drive out of Grosse Point and their pasts, with Grocer dead and Martin’s target alive.

Cut to eleven years later and War Inc. This time out, Cusack is Hauser, a depressed hitman working for Tamerlane, a company owned by the recently resigned Vice-President (Dan Aykroyd again), and which is running the first completely privatized war in the occupied country of Turaqistan. Hauser is ordered to the country to commit a political assassination, while hiding under the guise of being a Tamerlane executive planning a publicity stunt wedding of a Middle Eastern pop star named Yonica Babyyeah (Hillary Duff). At the same time, Hauser attempts to form some type of relationship with reporter Natalie Hegalhuzen (Marisa Tomei), who is trying to expose the sins of Tamerlane.

If Grosse Pointe Blank was an optimistic tale of being able to move past the sins of old, War Inc. is an almost hopeless film which ends on a deliberately ambiguous note (pay close attention in the final few scenes of the film), a world where Grocer won and is getting away with it, almost literally as Aykroyd’s casting as the VP insinuates. Unfortunately, the film also differs from Grosse Pointe Blank in being nowhere near as sharply written, fined tuned, or timely. Whereas Grosse Pointe Blank was riding the zeitgeist of its time, War Inc. is arriving at least a year too late, if not four, offering a pessimistic take on America’s future and politics just as the country seems to be moving in a more hopeful direction.

The main problem with War Inc. is that it goes the exact opposite route of what made its predecessor work: it places its politics before its characters, rather than allowing the politics to be subtext. The film is so overt in its politics that it feels like Cusack and crew were reading H.G. Wells before embarking on the screenplay, didactically denouncing the Bush administration’s policies while forgetting that they were attempting to make a comedy. The near future/semi-sci-fi setting of the film is gratuitous and unnecessary, and the film would have worked better by distancing itself from its very topic , at least overtly. Setting the film in a middle eastern country, fictional or real, is so in the audiences face that the characters are almost entirely reduced to caricatures, rather than real flesh and blood human beings. This could have worked had the film entered into almost total abandon with any sense of reality. Unfortunately, the film does want you to take the supposed drama of the film completely seriously and invest in its characters.

Nothing makes this point clearer than the film’s twist towards the end (MAJOR SPOILER AHEAD). As we learn during the course of the film, Hauser’s wife was murdered years before and his daughter taken, with him completely unable to locate her. However, as Hauser confronts the mysterious Viceroy (at least the film wants the character to be mysterious. It will take you all of five seconds to piece the identity of the character together once you hear the voice), we learn that Yonica is his daughter. This revelation adds nothing to the film whatsoever, rather acting as a convenient plot device. In fact, it really only seems to exist to justify the casting as Duff as a Middle Eastern pop star. Of course, just about everything involving Yonica serves no purpose in the film, seemingly instead to be a tangent about low brow American culture dominating other countries that nobody seemed to ask Cusack remove from his script. (SPOILERS OFF)

However, this is not to say the film is not worth watching. While the satire might be a bust, the character of Hauser remains strangely compelling to watch. While on the surface Hauser might seem much like Martin Blank, Hauser is a far more broken and bitter character. In one of the running jokes throughout the film that actually works, Hauser engages in forms of therapeutic conversation with the disembodied Guidestar employee, voiced by of all people Montel Williams, letting the viewer in on Hauser’s disconnect from the world around him. Furthermore, the banter between Hauser and Natalie is fairly witty and enjoyable. Nothing as quotable as the majority of Grosse Pointe Blank is, but not bad.

In fact, Cusack and the rest of the cast are solid enough. The hitman role is tailor made for Cusack and he delivers in acting, if not in the scripting this time out. Tomei makes for a good “straight man” to Cusack’s Hauser, while Duff manages to surprise by not make me hate her every minute she’s onscreen. Aykroyd however is wasted, as is Joan Cusack who tries her hardest to make every scene she is in work.

As for the direction from Joshua Seftel, it is solid, though the film is clearly the artistic efforts of Cusack more than anyone else. Seftel brings a solid hand to the film, but is hampered by the weaknesses of the script. He does have an eye for action, effectively staging a number of sequences without drifting into too much shaky cam or Michael Bay style editing.

To sum it all up, War Inc. is a well intentioned disappointment, failing to live up to its thematic predecessor or deliver upon the promise that it holds at its core. I would still recommend renting the film, but simply keeping low expectations going in.

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