Writing a review for director McG’s glib attempt at a romantic action comedy, This Means War, is not a particularly difficult task. The film’s flaws are laid bare from the opening moments of the film when a poorly shot action scene immediately proves to be pointless. It is easy to pick apart the dreadful script, the aimless direction, and the performances from the two leading ladies that are more forced than the smiles of Callista Gingrich. However, there is something more interesting happening that manifests itself in the performances of Tom Hardy and Chris Pine. When glanced a certain way, This Means War can be viewed as a story about unrequited love between two machismos who work in an industry where such behavior must be kept secret.
The argument against this theory is probably stronger than the argument in its favor, but the experience of This Means War is a lot more fun if it is kept in mind. The unabashedly narcissistic director McG, the same man who once challenged Michael Bay to a penis measuring contest, is not likely capable of plumbing these emotional depths, but the immensely talented Tom Hardy certainly is. It reminds me of Ben-Hur, when Stephen Boyd decided his character was in love with Charlton Heston’s character, but failed to tell the conservative Heston that this was happening. That subtle romance, however, has an wonderful epic film to support it, however, and This Means War does not.
Hardy and Pine play Tuck and FDR respectively, two CIA agents on assignment to bring down the Heinrich brothers, two European criminals who apparently did something bad (we never really learn what). After mercilessly killing about a dozen foreign operatives, they are suspended because of damage they caused to public property (the killing is fine). Stuck in the office, they decide to turn their attention to personal pursuits, namely their wavering love lives. The less assured Tuck sets up an online dating profile while the more confident FDR turns to his reliable (and super relevant) video rental store to scan for women. In a completely predictable twist, the two men end up both connecting with the spirited entrepreneur and romantically cursed Lauren (Reese Witherspoon).
Unable to make up her own mind, Lauren entertains both suitors while seeking the advice of her wise-cracking married friend Trish (Chelsea Handler). Despite herself, she falls madly in love with both men and narrowly avoids finding out what they really do for a living. Throughout the film we see repeated scenes of the two couples on dates while the other man watches via remarkably placed surveillance cameras. Jealousy erupts and the friends attempt to sabotage one another through the use of criminally mishandled government resources (two teams of three men each are assigned to full-time surveillance on Lauren). Meanwhile their friendship crumbles and the audience, like Lauren, is forced to decide which spy is Mr. Right.
The screenplay is co-written by Timothy Dowling (Just Go with It) and Simon Kinberg (Sherlock Holmes) and seems to be tailor made for the Valentine’s Day crowd. Neither of the two male writers sees to have any grasp on how women speak, or men for that matter, as the lines of dialogue consist mostly of extremely tired clichés. This is certainly no more apparent than in the conversations between Witherspoon and Handler that are dreadful even by male-dominated Hollywood standards. The comedy in Chelsea Handler’s foul-mouthed mommy shtick wore off within the first few seconds of the movie’s trailer and her dismal attempt to be relevant by being the funny lady was near painful to watch.
The film has plot holes aplenty; too many to name in one review. There is a strange and incomplete subplot with Lauren’s ex-boyfriend, played thanklessly by Warren Christie. There is CIA Supervisor Collins (Angela Bassett) who chastises the men for damaging a hotel, but is somehow oblivious to the huge operation they run to spy on Lauren. There is a bizarre paradox between Tuck and FDR’s CIA world, which is infused with the latest technology, and their cover stories, which do not seem relevant in the 21st Century (Tuck claims to be a “travel agent” and FDR spends his free time at a movie rental store).
McG was no more or less inept with this film than he has proven to be in previous efforts. There are not many action scenes, which is actually a good thing because we see at the beginning that McG is clueless when it comes to filming them. In the opening scene we do not really see both sides of the shootout, but Tuck and FDR almost exclusively, distancing the audience from the men getting mowed down by their gunfire. There is a clever send-up to the Copacabana tracking shot from Goodfellas in a scene where FDR takes Lauren through his nightclub. It is irrelevant, but a nice break from the camerawork that is otherwise totally lacking in ambition.
Since her Oscar win for 2005’s Walk the Line Reese Witherspoon’s star has been dimming. It will be hard to bounce back from This Means War as Witherspoon is easily the dead weight that brings down laudable attempts by Hardy and Pine (the former more so than the latter). However, it’s Witherspoon’s bad performance that actually allows the viewer to focus more on the subtext between the two masculine CIA agents. The aforementioned Goodfellas reference is particularly apropos in the context of FDR’s love life – Saturday night was for the wives (Tuck) and Friday was for the girlfriends (Lauren). During the surveillance scenes, there is the sense that each of the men is watching the other more than they are watching Lauren. At least it’s more fun to pretend that is what’s happening.
Bottom Line: Taken for what it is, This Means War is awful; but the possible hidden meanings make it a little bit more fun.