So, recently, I saw the movie War Inc. with John Cusack. For a while after first hearing about the movie, which didn’t really have any box office success I guess, I thought it was a sequel to Grosse Pointe Blank. Having loved that movie and generally being a John (and Joan) Cusack fan, I was psyched to see War Inc.
But you see, it’s not a sequel, despite having John Cusack starring as a burned-out hitman and supporting roles by Dan Aykroyd and Cusack’s sister, Joan. And in a strange way, it is a sequel, at least in a thematic and maybe even spiritual sense. Looking at the movies is kind of like looking at two lifelong friends side-by-side who are so very similar in so many ways you’d swear they might be twin siblings, but are in fact two largely unrelated people.
First, for the unitiated:
Grosse Point Blank is an utterly fantastic 1997 film in which John Cusack plays a dry-witted killer for hire who seems to be at a point when he’s not sure he wants to be doing assassinations anymore. He is hired to do a job in his old home town of Grosse Pointe, Mich., around the same time his high school reunion is being held. He goes to do the job, reunites with an old flame and tries to dodge a rival hitman (played by Aykroyd) who wants to kill Cusack’s character, Martin Blank—not so much because of their rivalry but because Aykroyd’s character wants to form a labor union for hitmen and Martin’s stubborn loner/independent streak makes him chafe at the idea and refuse to join. By the end of the movie, Martin’s personal life intersects intimately with his work and he has a choice to make about whether he really should do this final job or hang up his guns.
It is a perfect showcase for Cusack’s signature character: A likable guy who is dry, witty, erudite, by equal turns taciturn much of the time and then frenetically verbose, and in some ways emotionally stilted while wanting to tap deeper emotional reserves. Cusack is brilliant at doing that character, and it informs some of his best work. Aykroyd is fantastic as his adversary and Joan Cusack makes a very amusing turn as the office assistant for Martin Blank’s hitman work.
It’s both a fish-out-of-water comedy and a romantic comedy, and with enough action thrown in with the fast-paced and funny dialogue to make things even more engaging and exciting.
War Inc., from 2008, on the surface sounds a lot like Grosse Point Blank, which is why I initially thought it might be a movie that picks up on Martin Blank’s life a decade later, when he’s somehow been pulled back into the hitman line of work. It isn’t. Here, Cusack is Brand Hauser, a former black ops (maybe CIA, maybe not) assassin turned independent hitman who forces down his emotions but is having a sort of midlife crisis around the whole assassination thing, especially after taking a romantic shine to a liberal political reporter he runs into on his current assignment. And that assignment is to kill a foreign corporate big wig named Omar Sharif, who is a rival to the CEO of a company called Tamerlane, played by Aykroyd. The Tamerlane CEO is the former vice president of the United States, clearly a Dick Cheney type, and is embroiled both in waging war in and rebuilding a nation called Turaqistan, which is clearly a stand-in for Iraq. It is never quite clear who is waging war in this country, the United States or Tamerlane, and the overall point is that war is becoming a corporate thing, with armies really supporting corporate interests and ultimately answering to the monetary powers that be, and not so much the U.S. government. Tanks and Humvees drive around with advertisments on them for consumer products and such, and the cover for Hauser’s assignment is that he is running an industry seminar in the war-torn nation. Brand Hauser is paired with a Tamerlane employee played by Joan Cusack, a terribly shrill and unpleasant character who chafes at having to play Hauser’s assistant.
War Inc. is a political satire, so that already puts it in a whole different category than Grosse Pointe Blank. And although there is a romantic element—and a strange paternal/romantic dynamic between Hauser and another female character, an oversexed, brash, shallow Turaqi pop singer played marvelously by Hillary Duff of all people—this is no romantic comedy. And the action in here seems out of place at times, more an intrusion than the delicious seasoning provided in Grosse Pointe Blank.
The problem, I think, with War Inc. is that John Cusack tried too hard. Inspired in part by the Naomi Klein article “Baghdad Year Zero: Pillaging Iraq in pursuit of a neocon utopia”, which was published in the September 2004 issue of The Harper’s Magazine, Cusack is trying for social commentary here. It’s sort of his personal Dr. Strangelove while also being an informal follow-on to Gross Pointe Blank. He was, I think, trying to step up what he did with the story and character of Martin Blank and make it relevant to our changing and ever-more-unsettled world. In both movies, Cusack’s character has a former government/military background, and then turns it into paying work in the private sector by killing important people that other important people see as impediments. It’s not hard to see how Cusack might see the character template playing well to both stories.
The problem is that Hauser, while he shares many of Blank’s traits, seems more tired, worn out and ultimately impotent, despite his skills in killing, than Blank ever did. Blank was trying to find a new purpose in life. Hauser seems simply lost. Blank was, as befits his name, trying to write a new future for himself and be a fresh canvas; that made him someone to relate to. Hauser’s first name, Brand, seems to speak to the fact that he’s not a person, but a commodity, and that ultimately dehumanizes him too much for me to care what happens to him.
Also, the comedic pace of War Inc. is terribly uneven. It’s not played earnest enough and straight enough to be a dark comedy on the order of Dr. Strangelove, it’s not absurd enough to be like a modern-day Brazil, and it’s not warm enough to be another Grosse Pointe Blank. Instead, it’s a little of all three, plus some other stuff tossed into the mix, and it just doesn’t bake together well.
In the end, I don’t think War Inc. is an awful film by any means. I did appreciate many aspects of it. But I think I only did so because I had seen and loved Grosse Point Blank. Having seen that first film and knowing what it was about and what Cusack is trying to do this time, I could enjoy War Inc. even as I was woefully diappointed in how far it fell short of the mark it could have hit.
My recommendation? See Grosse Pointe Blank first, if you haven’t already, then view War Inc. I think it will be much more enjoyable that way.
Though it will also help to be a John Cusack fan. If you’re not, you might want to skip War Inc. entirely.