Grosse Point Blank, now over ten years old, was the pinnacle of John Cusack's career, an outstanding action-comedy, using dark wit and some excellent characters to elevate a standard rom-com to classic status. He never quite hit the mark again, despite coming close with decent comedies like High Fidelity, a couple of quite sweet romantic affairs like Serendipity and even a few reasonably good serious dramatic affairs like Identity. Apparently he had always wanted to do a sequel to Grosse Point Blank, but property ownership prevented a direct sequel. Which leaves us with War, Inc. Released direct-to-Blu-ray (well, it had a limited US theatrical run, but is clearly aiming for profits on the Home Cinema front), it received mixed reactions from critics and fans alike, but few who loved that John Cusack of old, didn't want to see him return to form.
Brand Hauser is an ex-CIA assassin - turned mercenary hitman - who now works for Tamerline, a Private US Corporation who sell everything you need to start (and finish) your own war - from soldiers to missiles. His latest mission is to travel to the protected 'Emerald City' in Turaqistan, which has recently been bombed the hell out of by the US, and where Tamerline now runs the show. There, he is supposed to assassinate a Middle Eastern oil minister who is seeking to create his own pipeline through the country. Under the cover of producing a Tamerline tradeshow, Hauser soon gets more than he bargained for, getting caught in a strange triangle between troubled pop-starlet Yonica Babyyeah and idealistic reporter Natalie Hegalhuzen, whilst suffering flashbacks to the death of his wife and reluctance over his chosen career path.
Based on the interesting article by Naomi Klein, Baghdad Year Zero: Pillaging Iraq in pursuit of a neocon utopia, War Inc. is a heavily political, satirical anti-war flick. The accusations? Well, in this movie we focus on a fictional country called Turaquistan, which has been devastated by sustained bombing from the US. It is posited that much of the destruction is a necessity, required in order to create future job opportunities and revenue. The US want the country for its oil access, they want to assassinate the Middle Eastern politician obstructing their access to the precious black blood, and they even use the very damage that they have caused as a good excuse to ship in their own private military corporation (Tamerline, who have the unofficial backing of the US Government) to put the pieces back together and ensure the prevalence of their self-appointed viceroy. They even have a green zone - the Emerald City - a supposedly safe area where only a limited number of explosions occur in any one hour. So far, so Baghdad. Is this really the reality of things in the Middle East? Well, who knows, but the movie certainly gives you some food for thought.
Still, you can just take it as a piece of absolute fiction if you prefer, although that might take some 'invention' of disbelief. At the centre of things is John Cusack's tortured hitman, and since Cusack co-wrote the story it would be foolish to ignore the links between this movie and his earlier (also penned) Grosse Point Blank. Sure, he's making a much more political statement here (whereas Grosse was, effectively, just an extremely unusual romantic comedy) but somebody out there has gone to great length to tie the two tales together. And I'd like to think the credit should go to Cusack. Whether or not the same style works as well with a political satire is entirely a matter of taste but, if you give it a chance - with no expectations, there is every chance you could find War Inc. a thoroughly enjoyable (and equally unusual) Cusack vehicle.
The man himself is on good form as well. Having provided a few lacklustre performances of late I was wondering whether he had become just too slow for this kind of snappy role - his awful Shining rip-off, 1408 and the abysmal The Contract to prime examples of where the man was currently at - but whilst he may not quite be the Martin Blank of 1997, he's not that bad as an older, even more cynical variation. Just as laconic and quick-witted, he still does consummate (and eccentric) professional very well, and can still pull off charming. He even gets to show off a few moves, both in terms of gunplay and hand-to-hand combat (which was one of the unexpected joys of '97's Grosse).
Surrounding him we have numerous familiar faces, many of whom you might remember from Grosse, whether the actor or a similar role or, as with Cusack himself, both. Ghostbusters' Dan Ackroyd plays the ex-VP-turned head of Tamerline, who dispatches Cusack's hitman to do their bidding. Deadpan to the extreme, he really should be in more movies (although I'm still a little sceptical about a third Ghostbusters film). We also get Gandhi himself, Ben Kingsley, who gets to put on a heavy Southern drawl in the role of Cusack's old handler back when he did wet-work for the Government. Even daytime-TV mainstay Montel Williams contributes his vocal talents as Cusack's vehicular guide (think KITT from Knight Rider, only a real person here), a role not a million miles away from Alan Arkin's harangued psychiatrist from Grosse Point Blank. Of course, it wouldn't be a proper John Cusack affair if he didn't involve his sister Joan in the action, reprising an almost identical role to that she had in Grosse, right down to her trademark hysterically frustrated shouting scenes that always work so well.
The perpetually alluring Marisa Tomei, who appears to be making some kind of a comeback, plays Cusack's sparring partner/love interest, not quite stepping into Minnie Driver's shoes (although Driver's character's absence is, effectively, explained away in flashback). Tomei's forte has always been playing passionate, forthright but also inwardly vulnerable roles, and here journalist here is no exception, with some of the movie's sweetest scenes occurring between her and Cusack.
Perhaps the biggest surprise (at least to me) was the revelation that Hilary Duff can actually act. Sure, ostensibly, she's playing a spoilt little pop star who thinks her looks will get her anywhere, but the character is actually given a lot more depth and, again, some of the quieter moments between her and Cusack are handled remarkably well. I'm not tipping her for an Oscar or anything, and I am sure she is going to continue making the majority of her money doing vapid romcoms, but there is still some hope left as it is clear here that she has more to offer.
As a dark comedy, a political satire of some considerable topical relevance, War Inc. is an understated, underappreciated gem, which also works extremely well as a follow-up/companion-piece to Cusack's superb Grosse Point Blank. And considering the ridiculously low budget they were working with, the end result is surprisingly grand and well-staged, with great performances, plenty of action, romance and quick-wittedness about it, as well as a large helping of striking political commentary that may just give you pause for thought. Far from perfect, this is still an underrated gem.
Our Review Ethos