When I first heard that John Cusack, Ben Kingsley, and Marissa Tomei were making a dark, satirical comedy about international politics and the propagation of corporate-sponsored war, I couldn’t suppress my excitement. It sounded like a fascinating genre-bender in the vein of ‘Dr. Strangelove’ and quickly earned a spot on my list of must-see releases. Unfortunately, a ridiculously-limited theatrical run and a slew of bad reviews left me disappointed and doubtful. Still, I had hope that writer Jeremy Pikser (‘Bullworth,’ a sharply-penned 1998 political satire) and the film’s strong cast would be able to win me over.
In the not-so-distant future, a private corporation owned and operated by the former Vice President of the United States (Dan Aykroyd) invades and occupies a war-torn Middle eastern country called Turaqistan. To solidify his power, the greedy VP hires the infamous assassin, Brand Hauser (John Cusack), to kill an oil minister named Omar Sharif (Lubomir Neikov). After making his way into the country, Brand goes undercover as a Trade Show producer who’s responsible for organizing the high-profile wedding of international pop star Yonica Babyyeah (Hilary Duff). The assassin not only has to supervise the sex-crazed starlet, he must contend with a growing desire to parent the girl, all while handling the efforts of a nosy left-wing reporter (Marisa Tomei) digging into the VP’s company, and the appearance of his former CIA mentor (Ben Kingsley).
Loosely based on “Baghdad Year Zero,” a 2004 Harper’s article by Naomi Klein, ‘War, Inc.’ wears its satire colorfully and proudly on its proverbial sleeve. In quick succession it skewers everything from Dick Cheney to Halliburton, no-bid oil contracts to war profiteers, and military policies to neo-conservative perspectives. Unfortunately, what could have been an intelligent (even insightful) exploration of troublesome current events and corporate misdeeds, is merely a satirical stab in the dark. ‘War, Inc.’ takes such heavy-handed, obvious jabs at its targets that it forgets to make any nuanced points. It’s easy to decipher every message director Joshua Seftel and his screenwriters are trying to deliver. War is bad. Corporations are worse. The public is deceived by those in power. The Middle East conflict is about oil.
Sadly, their attempts to resolve these points and evoke the tones of far superior films like ‘Dr. Strangelove’ and ‘Wag the Dog’ fall flat in a parade of absurd names (Ooq-Mi-Fay and Ooq-Yu-Fay Taqnufmini, Yonica Babyyeah, and Bhodi Bhundhang, to name a few), over-the-top Gilliam-esque exaggeration (the scene where Cusack high-steps with guards to a briefing room is painful), and transparent caricatures in place of actual characters. The entire film amounted to a political rant instead of a well-considered satire -- the equivalent of a guy screaming on the street about every political issue that pops into his mind. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t offended by the politics of the piece, but rather its insistence on giving its message a grating, annoying voice that will even turn off the majority of the choir its preaching to. No wonder Hilary Duff was the only actor who actively promoted the film before its release.
I’m sure there are people out there who will enjoy ‘War, Inc.’ and its bizarre blend of slapstick, family drama, and political comedy. Personally, I would much rather watch films like ‘Dr. Strangelove,’ ‘Wag the Dog,’ ‘Brazil,’ or Pikser’s own ‘Bullworth’ to get my daily dose of cinematic satire. Don’t be lured in by its cast or concept, ‘War, Inc.’ isn’t nearly as intelligent or coherent as it bills itself to be.
At first glance, ‘War, Inc.’s 1080p/VC-1 transfer boasts strong colors, natural skintones, solid texture detail, and decent depth. While all of that remains true from beginning to end, clarity inconsistencies, unresolved black levels, and a few technical mishaps mar the otherwise notable picture. Delineation and contrast are problems at times as well -- in fact, an early scene of Cusack in the shadowy cockpit of a plane looks bland, washed out, and utterly two-dimensional. I didn’t detect any DNR or edge enhancement, but distracting artifacts (watch the red wall behind Dan Aykroyd when he first communicates with Cusack), errant banding (look at Kingsley’s dual-wielding scene), and intrusive source noise (particularly visible in the last twenty minutes) appeared throughout the film.
That may sound like a laundry list of negatives for a three-star transfer but, taken as a whole, the transfer is better than average, the Blu-ray edition is sharper and more colorful than its DVD counterpart, and the bland visuals and technical hiccups are relatively minor in the grand scheme of things. Ultimately, ‘War, Inc.’ is a respectable but flawed high-def release.
Thankfully, First Look’s Dolby TrueHD 5.1 surround track is more impressive. Dialogue is crisp and clear, the soundscape is well prioritized (even when comical chaos erupts across the soundstage), and dynamics are noteworthy. More importantly, the LFE channel does a fine job supporting low-end tones and explosions, the rear speakers keep Turaqistan busy and immersive, and smooth pans make the soundfield relatively realistic. Sure, the film’s sound design is pushed to strange extremes at times, but such moments were rarel and always struck me as the intentional product of the director’s satirical tone.
If I have any complaint it’s that directionality isn’t as precise as I’ve come to expect from a TrueHD experience. Effects often attack from all directions instead of creating a complete and cohesive soundfield. It certainly isn’t a debilitating issue, but one that keeps the track from being as effective as it could be. Still, ‘War, Inc.’ sounds quite good and should easily please fans of the film looking for more involving sonics than the standard DVD provides.
While a director or cast commentary may have helped alleviate my problems with the film itself, ‘War, Inc.’ doesn’t include any special features.
’War, Inc.’ didn’t work for me as a dark comedy, political satire, or embellished drama. Its characters were repulsive, its gags were underdeveloped, and its attacks were too transparent and simplistic to create a compelling exploration of the film’s targets. Unfortunately, the Blu-ray edition’s impressive Dolby TrueHD audio track can’t save this high-def release from a problematic video transfer and an absence of supplemental material. Make sure you rent this one before throwing down cash based on the potential of the film’s cast and concept alone.