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In 'War, Inc.,' It's Not Just Villains Throwing Bombs

Brand Hauser (John Cusack) attempts an assassination in war-torn Turaqistan. Simon Versano/First Look Studios hide caption

toggle caption Simon Versano/First Look Studios

Brand Hauser (John Cusack) attempts an assassination in war-torn Turaqistan.

Simon Versano/First Look Studios

War, Inc.

  • Director: Joshua Seftel
  • Genre: Political Satire
  • Running Time: 107 minutes

Rated R: Dirty-mouthed hit men, scantily clad divas, and some explosions.

Yonica Babyyeah (Hillary Duff) sexualizes war through bubblegum pop songs. Simon Versano/First Look Studios hide caption

toggle caption Simon Versano/First Look Studios

Yonica Babyyeah (Hillary Duff) sexualizes war through bubblegum pop songs.

Simon Versano/First Look Studios

Opening in two theaters at the start of blockbuster season, War, Inc. was hardly poised for box office dominance. Less surprising than bracing, tilting from savage satire to giddily conventional action-romance, the movie takes aim instead at those few viewers seeking what might be termed "alternative entertainment."

On its face, it seems a familiar saga of individual redemption: En route from the bloody scene of his latest gig, professional assassin Brand Hauser (producer and co-writer John Cusack) gets news of a life-changing mission.

Summoned via videophone by the former vice-president (Dan Aykroyd, playing a gnarly Dick Cheney on a toilet, a caricature reinforced in a promotional poster by legendary guerrilla artist Robbie Conal), Brand flies to Turaqistan, where he's supposed to assassinate oil magnate Omar Sharif (Lyubomir Neikov).

On landing, Brand goes undercover as the overseer of a corporate showcase in the fortified Emerald City (think Baghdad's Green Zone), where buyers and sellers and reporters drink, hobnob and take home gift bags.

Run by the ex-veep's own company, Tamerlane — all likenesses to Halliburton thoroughly intentional; ditto the bloodthirsty-conqueror name-check — the showcase reveals the rationale for the invasion and occupation of the fictional Turaqistan — namely, the destruction of a native culture to be replaced by a global commercial enterprise, all coordinated by Tamerlane.

(While this plot alludes knowingly to current events — no-bid contracts for Western oil companies, anyone? — the inspiration was Naomi Klein's 2004 Harper's article "Baghdad Year Zero.")

Accused of profiteering, Brand explains the system like so: "Business is a uniquely human response to moral or cosmic crisis. Whether it's a tsunami or sustained aerial bombardment, there's the same urgent call for urban renewal."

He is, of course, in need of his own renewal, troubled by a past trauma (shown in flashbacks) even as he demonstrates extraordinary killing skills. Also predictably, his ideological options come in the forms of two women, the earnestly liberal journalist Natalie (Marisa Tomei) and the Britney-esque pop singer Yonica Babyyeah (Hilary Duff).

While all this plotty business aligns War, Inc. with other, higher-profile action-thrillers (think The Bourne Identity or even Iron Man), its political critique is more explicit and its ad campaign more oblique.

So if you're not impressed by Tamerlane's Big Brotherish viceroy (whose image morphs from John Wayne to the Fonz to Ronald Reagan) or by the film's line of amputee dancing girls (their new high-tech prostheses proving, as Brand says, that "American know-how alleviates the suffering it creates"), you might be moved by its celebrity fans, who range from Liz Phair to Gore Vidal to Sarah Silverman.

Yes, the film preaches to a choir. And yes, it knows what it's doing.

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