May 2, 2008
I’m quite fond of Grosse Point Blank. I also really love Brazil. I even think Naomi Klein is pretty great. But apparently when you combine these awesome things, you end up with a very confusing mess of a movie. At least, that’s what happened to War Inc., which can’t quite tell what sort of movie it wants to be.
The obvious influence is Grosse Point Blank, which cast John Cusack as a hitman experience moral doubts about his profession as he attends his high school reunion and romances an old girlfriend. It’s a nice and low-key character-oriented film with a dark sense of humour. But the other influence is Naomi Klein’s writings on the increasing privatization of war, both military and reconstruction. And that part of the film takes the form of gonzo, over-the-top satire. The two elements don’t mix at all well, and mostly end up cancelling each other out.
Is War Inc. the story of a hitman’s quest for redemption and moral salvation, or is it a satire of the corporatization of war? Those concepts shouldn’t have to be mutually exclusive, and there are a few moments when they work well together. Joan Cusack happily embraces the satirical elements of the movie, and a team of videographers-turned-terrorists make an amusing foil. An “Embedded Journalist Simulator” offers journalists the experience of the warzone without the risk (unless they happen to be epileptic), and the assassin confiding in his OnStar navigatior is a decent running gag.
But most of the time, it’s just jarring. The story of a man’s wife being murdered and his daughter kidnapped doesn’t really work against a backdrop of tanks with corporate sponsorships and top-secret bunkers in fast food chicken joints. A race through a warzone is less dramatic when we’ve already seen some of those soldiers delivering dry cleaning. And the finale is such a bizarre mixture of drama and absurdity that it elicits neither laughs nor emotion.
Mixing broad satire and semi-serious character work is a daunting task, but it can be done. Terry Gilliam’s Brazil is the shining example: It’s an absurd dystopian society full of fascist bureaucracy, mad plastic surgeons, and rogue air conditioning repairmen, but it never fully abandons the drama and character that keep the film moving. But Brazil has an internal logic and consistency that War Inc., completely lacks.
And then there’s the pop star. As a one-note joke, Hilary Duff is entertaining enough as the Middle East’s answer to Britney Spears. She’s inappropriately sexy, she’s marrying a tribal warlord, she has a thing for the appropriately reluctant Cusack. Fine. But as the film progresses, Duff’s role is increased to starring proportions, and neither the character nor the actress is up to the task. As if War Inc. wasn’t confused enough, it’s now also trying to tell the story of an innocent young girl caught up in the pop entertainment machine. There’d be hope for the movie if it abandoned this storyline: It slows things down for most of the movie, then plays a predictably implausible role in the finale.
For a film that would probably like to think of itself as a smart comedy, War Inc. seems to think its audience is pretty dumb. A slightly amusing sign gets a closeup when it was pretty obvious in the previous long shot. The assassination target speaks, like half the cast, with a vaguely Middle Eastern accent, and is subtitled for some reason – and what’s even worse, there’s a grammatical error in one of them. (And no, it’s not even a funny one.)
In its possible defence, War Inc. has the feel of a movie that has seen substantial studio interference. Maybe, at some point, it was the clever and balanced satire it so dearly wants to be. But perhaps the studio wanted some more romance and human interest. And then Hilary Duff got interested, but she wanted the part expanded.
Then again, maybe it’s just not very good because the filmmakers are fairly inexperienced. War Inc. is Mark Leyner’s first screenplay, and director Joshua Seftel’s experience seems to have come in television and documentaries. That’s not exactly the sort of pedigree you want when attempting such a delicate balancing act. The film alternately lacks humour and subtlety, at all the wrong moments.
It also borrows about 25% too liberally from Grosse Point Blank. While using that film’s concepts and (more or less) characters is all well and good, copying the inevitable “oh my god, he’s a hitman” scene almost verbatim takes things too far.
War Inc. wants so badly to be clever and funny and cutting edge, but ultimately it’s just a mess. Its tone is wildly inconsistent, characters lurch to and fro in their motivations to serve plot points, and I’m not sure anyone even gave Ben Kingsley a copy of the script. The filmmakers bit off more than they can chew, and while I’m all for ambition, turning War Inc. into the film it wants to be would require a lot more skill. Grosse Point Blank wasn’t a particularly brilliant film, but it was perfectly executed and knew what it wanted to do; War Inc. barely even meets its predecessor’s standards, and its failings are even more obvious thanks to its lofty goals.