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Originally published Friday, June 13, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Movie review

"War, Inc.": A fine way to occupy your time, if not a country

"War, Inc. " is a high-adrenaline farce about America's occupation of Iraq and, by extension, U.S. interests in oil-rich nations. A sprawling folly, this...

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie review 3 stars

"War, Inc.," with John Cusack, Marisa Tomei, Hilary Duff, Ben Kingsley, Joan Cusack, Dan Aykroyd. Directed by Joshua Seftel, from a screenplay by John Cusack, Mark Leyner and Jeremy Pikser. 106 minutes. Rated R for violence, language and sexual situations. Seven Gables, Uptown.

"War, Inc." is a high-adrenaline farce about America's occupation of Iraq and, by extension, U.S. interests in oil-rich nations. A sprawling folly, this uniquely hellish war film has almost breathtakingly impressive (and busy) production values and is anchored by a memorably complicated performance from John Cusack.

"War, Inc." has been unfavorably compared to Stanley Kubrick's cold, absurdist dramas ("Full Metal Jacket"). But the film is really more reminiscent — in a good way — of Mike Nichols' flawed but compelling adaptation of "Catch-22," another movie that attacks war as a business opportunity and haven for dealmakers.

"War, Inc." has an interesting director at the helm: Joshua Seftel, who made an eye-opening (and, as with "War, Inc.," politically contrarian) documentary in 1996 called "Taking On the Kennedys." No doubt Seftel stands by "War, Inc.'s" extreme vision of a shattered Middle East nation under the grip of American corporations staking turf while insurgent bombs explode in the streets.

But it's hard not to see Cusack — the film's star, co-writer and co-producer — as a prime mover behind the project. Cusack is known as a critic of U.S. policies at home and abroad, though he tends to channel his opinions through his work, at a human level.

Indeed, the on-screen humanity for which Cusack is properly beloved by fans makes his isolated antihero in "War, Inc." a sympathetic study in unsustainable contradictions. A former CIA killer turned lone-wolf hit man following a tragic loss, Cusack's Brand Hauser is a samurailike assassin. He takes out targets that irritate Tamerlane, a finger-in-every-pie, Halliburton-like company run by — you'll never guess — a Dick Cheney-ish former vice president (Dan Aykroyd).

Sent to war-torn Turaqistan, Hauser is supposed to take out an oil minister by the name of Omar Sharif (Lubomir Neikov). But Hauser's usual dispassion fails him as he finds himself powerfully drawn to an intrepid journalist (wonderful work by Marisa Tomei) and a Britney Spears-like Turaqistani pop tart (Hilary Duff, finally looking like a real actress) doomed to exploitation.

Cusack's modulated reading of Hauser's increasing strain helps temper "War, Inc.," which is on satiric overdrive from the moment Cusack appears to the spaghetti-western-like musical score.

The script takes on so many targets so rapidly, it's hard to get up to speed on their internal connection. In an imaginary country being force-fed Western brands (Coke, Financial Times), for instance, Duff's character certainly looks like just another corporate product. But it's hard to see what the culture-of-celebrity spoof surrounding her has to do with the main story.

Joan Cusack, John's sister, is very good as a nattering war hawk assisting Hauser, and Ben Kingsley relishes his part as a cartoonish villain who might very well have been in Kubrick's "Dr. Strangelove." However one feels about "War, Inc.'s" transparent stance on America's Iraq adventure (and much else), such pockets of comedy stick with you.

Tom Keogh: tomwkeogh@yahoo.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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