War, Inc. : A Long & Winding Consideration.
I guess I was hoping for another Grosse Pointe Blank.
War, Inc. is the new movie from John Cusack. There are other writers and a director credited, but the first credit that comes up is New Crime, Cusack’s production company – this is his show, reflecting his sensibility, of which I tend to be a fan. It promises to be of a piece with the hitman-goes-to-his-high-school-reunion black comedy Grosse Pointe Blank and the record-store-clerks-with-problematic-relationships black comedy High Fidelity of several years back, but ultimately falls short of those standards.
Part of the reason is that it’s far more ambitious, or set on a larger scale anyway. The action takes place in a possible future, across a couple fictional (or not yet existent) countries.
Basically, the story: Cusack plays an alcoholic hitman with a secondary addiction to hot sauce who is enlisted by the sketchy, public-pooping United States Vice President (Dan Aykroyd) to assassinate a Middle Eastern oil monarch. Somehow in there, the hitman gets mixed up with that country’s most popular teen star (Hilary Duff) and an ultra-liberal reporter (Marisa Tomei) who is covering the whole thing, and all the while he is besieged by troubled memories of his former, supposedly-deceased mentor (Ben Kingsley).
It’s kind of hard to explain.
Hard to follow, too. That’s another reason the movie doesn’t really work. The actors are all good, especially Kingsley, who does a nice riff on his bugged-out Sexy Beast role, but especially with the rapid-fire Cusack-style pace, it’s tough to figure out sometimes what they’re on about.
Nor does it help that the movie was shot with the kind of soggy, glowing 1970s soft-focus cinematography that isn’t to my tastes in general, and in this case seems to be an uneasy fit with the harsh material. I think a crisper look would have made the whole thing come off a little better.
War, Inc. has a lot to say about out-of-control consumerism, capitalist imperialism, mind-numbing bureaucracy, good old American exploitation of youth and sex, and of course callous violence. But many of its sharpest points feel familiar (the chain-store billboards slapped on U.S. tanks feel like a holdover gag from Idiocracy, for one), and there is also a large element of preaching to the choir going on here. A movie like this is never going to do Iron Man business, so who’s exactly in the audience? The people it’s most often concerned with commenting upon are not the kind who are open-minded enough to go out of their way to search out and consider a conflicting opinion. The people who are going to see a movie like this are the ones who agree entirely with John Cusack’s bravely outspoken but hard-edged point of view, or those who, like myself, enjoy his previous, more unconventional work enough to be willing to hear out a political argument that may not coincide with their own. So yeah, there weren’t many people in the theater with me.
Another problem with War, Inc. is that the satire is complicated by character development – a storytelling element that is traditionally strong in the Cusack filmography. One example is the prickly, strained, electric growing relationship between the secretive hitman and the tenacious reporter. John Cusack and Marisa Tomei, in my opinion, are aces at creating believable characters and relationships. But here it distracts from the satire (if you’re investing in their story, it’s difficult to laugh at the jokes surrounding them), and it makes the other, broader characters come off as confusing and annoying, which is not always as they’re intended.
It’s a strange complaint, that the movie has character work that is too good (more movies should be so unlucky), but the truth is: Strong character development is, for better or worse, entirely out of place in satire, a genre where outlandishness and broad strokes work the best. Hilary Duff’s conflicted Arabic Britney Spears character is the locus of where War, Inc. mis-steps. I’ve never seen Hilary Duff in anything before so I’m not sure what I’m supposed to presuppose about her acting, but she’s very convincing in this movie. The problem is that she’s playing a “type”, and one we don’t expect to get to know. When we do, for example when Cusack sees her in a quiet moment playing a more personal song, it feels muddled and confusing.
Imagine, for example, if Dr. Strangelove gave us a prolonged love story between Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott) and his secretary. That wouldn’t work, because their relationship has little or nothing to do with the point of the movie. Further, you can’t take too seriously the warnings about a communist fluoridation plot made by a man named Jack D. Ripper, although the fact that Sterling Hayden plays it dead serious is the reason why it’s so funny. It’s a fine line, but an important distinction.
The real problem with political satire and social satire, at this point in time, is that things have just gotten too far out of hand to effectively lampoon. I don’t care which side of the political fence you entrench yourself upon, you gotta admit that there are caricatures across the political board. And I’m not even attempting to talk about what’s actually happened and still happening.
The past decade has been a cartoonist’s wildest dream, even on the most superficial level. Look at those faces:
[Equal opportunity offensiveness in 5, 4, 3, 2…]
Bill Clinton looks more and more like W.C. Fields every day,
Hillary Clinton looks like a ventriloquist dummy gone mad,
John Kerry looks like an Easter Island statue,
Rudy Giuliani looks like Nosferatu with a combover,
George Bush Jr. looks like a 70-year-old Monchichi with cottonmouth,
Dick Cheney looks like a rejected Conan O’Brien character “Constipated Honky CEO”,
Condoleeza Rice looks like Harriet from Family Matters (while Al Sharpton looks like Reginald VelJohnson with a James Brown weave glued on),
and Karl Rove doesn’t even look like a real live 3-D human being; he looks like something Ren & Stimpy creator John Kricfalusi drew and then threw away because it was too silly-looking.
Oh yeah, and California Governor Schwarzenegger looks like Dutch Schaeffer from Predator.
World’s gone cartoon.
Speaking of which, anybody else see this news last week?
Sonny Landham is making a run for office. You know what this means: the trifecta. After Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jesse “The Body” Ventura, yet another cast member from Predator has gone into politics.
Sonny Landham you will remember as the huge Native-American-looking guy who had that movie-Native anticipation of the Predator, who inspired Arnold to grumble “Hey Billy, get me a way out of this hole”, and who played the same exact role in 48 Hours, minus the log-bridge-based evisceration from a dread-locked alien.
Anyway, apparently Sonny is far to the right of both Arnold and Jesse, and the problems he faces from his party is less their reservations about his status as a badass cast member of Predator (in fact it’s fair to assume they LOVE the movie Predator, as they should). The objection is more about his short-lived porn career in the 1970s. But since no one, least of all your humble narrator, wants to contemplate that mental image, I will go back to harping on the matter of the mass migration of the cast of Predator into party politics. Specifically: Why Sonny? Why now? Who’s missing?
Personally, here’s my list of the remaining members of the Predator platoon, from least likely to run for office, to most:
7. Sonny Landham
6. Shane Black
5. The guy who played Poncho
4. Bill Duke
3. Carl Weathers
That’s right, Carl Weathers! He needs to do less of his great Arrested Development guest appearances, and do more looking for a good speechwriter (right here, Mr. Weathers.) Of that entire cast, my endorsement would have to be the man who were Action Jackson.
Obama/Weathers 2008, anyone?
How about McCain/Weathers 2008?
I don’t really care which, so long as we get Weathers on there somewhere. If we’re gonna get nuts, let’s get nuts!