Even less funny than Southland Tales and not nearly as adventurous, War, Inc. brings new levels of desperation and botched satire to the anti-Bush, Strangelove-wannabe genre. John Cusack reprises his Grosse Point Blank role in all but name as Hauser, a freelancing ex-C.I.A. assassin hired by the former U.S. vice president (Dan Aykroyd in a Cheney skit) to ice an uncooperative Middle Eastern oil minister in chaotic Turaqistan, recently invaded and occupied by the ex-veep’s Halliburton-like corporation. Running a capitalist pig-out trade show as his cover (featuring a chorus line of prosthetic-equipped bombing survivors and Democracy Light cigarettes), Hauser sweet talks and parries with a dogged lefty reporter (Marisa Tomei, making a habit of shining in bad movies) and is forced to engineer the climactic wedding spectacular of Central Asian pop singer Yonica Babyyeah (Hilary Duff, adequate but forced to croon lame parodies with lines like “I want to blow you…up”).
Producer Cusack and his heretofore talented co-writers, Mark Leyner and Bulworth scribe Jeremy Pikser, seldom integrate their sermons-to-the-converted into the characters; would Hauser lament how “we turned Central America into a graveyard” while still executing Washington-commissioned hits? Worse, whatever laughs were on the page are usually stifled by director Joshua Seftel’s bad instincts, predictable Arabic caricatures (if there’s a key to getting laughs from hostage-takers debating the best beheading technique, it’s not found here), the murky cinematography, and a succession of step-printed martial arts ass-kickings administered by Cusack. Getting a moron like TV shouter John McLaughlin to play himself just because he’s willing is not a mark of well-honed satire either.
When the early heavy-handed political jabs give way to the pre-wedding crises of oversexed Yonica, the film actually improves (marginally) as a warmed-over variation on Billy Wilder’s One, Two, Three, but the finale’s loud explosions and weirdly retro villainy, with an unplaceably-accented Ben Kingsley gamboling about in a wheelchair, restore the numbing inertia. (Joan Cusack is made to leer and screech unpleasantly as Hauser’s unhinged co-conspirator.) Even before an unprofitable twist re Hauser’s long lost family, he’s burdened with a bit of Bogart-like bravado, telling Tomei, “I have no politics.” “Everyone has politics,” she replies, “even if they don’t know it.” If only someone had told Cusack and his War, Inc. collaborators that they brought politics and little else before the camera.