This Means War – 1 1/2 Buckets
It’s never a good sign when, as one watches a movie, one imagines the studio pitch meeting in one’s head. This is the case with This Means War, which was undoubtedly conceived as a carefully-targeted corporate product rather than an actual film. “We need something that will appeal to men and women equally, so we can draw in as many couples as possible, doubling our revenue,” that meeting likely began. Or maybe the executives got down to brass tacks right away: “Mr. and Mrs. Smith made us a fortune, and it has been seven years since – time to come up with something similar!” They walked out with the latest blend of the romantic-comedy and the action film, starring the most macho actors (Chris Pine and Tom Hardy) and the most sympathetic actress (Reese Witherspoon) in the business.
Of course, had this uncreative idea been realized with artistry—that is, directed by somebody other than McG, whose obnoxious pseudonym adequately characterizes his brand of Hollywood hackwork—perhaps the film’s commerciality would have been less evident. But even the least discriminating Friday night megaplex-goer will recognize the shoddy filmmaking on display. From the beginning, the male-targeted material is a bust – the opening action sequences, featuring a shootout between Pine and Hardy’s CIA agents and Russian arms-dealers, is one of the most incompetently constructed in recent memory, full of visual flourishes and quick-cuts that make it virtually impossible to follow. It’s soon joined by equally inept rom-com fodder.
In fact, for all the synthetic testosterone that writers Timothy Dowling and Simon Kinberg attempt to inject into the movie via the CIA mission subplot, This Means War is still 90 percent romantic-comedy. Pine’s FDR (presumably, but not certainly, named after President FDR) and Hardy’s Tuck happen to be dating the same woman (Witherspoon’s Lauren), unbeknownst to the other. When they realize this, they do what every CIA agent would do – turn the honest mix-up into a competition, each using the agency’s resources to spy on and sabotage the other’s dates.
The three leads are given little to work with and they have zero chemistry with one another—neither the Pine/Hardy bromance nor the dual Witherspoon romances are believable—but they are nonetheless the highlight of the movie. Even subject to McG’s lackluster puppeteering, the trio’s star qualities are readily apparent. Each of them (particularly Witherspoon) has an undeniable magnetism that somehow penetrates through the awful material. The same cannot be said for supporter Chelsea Handler, whose success has never eluded me more than while watching this movie, wherein she spits out lines like “You think Gloria Steinem got arrested and sat in a jail cell so you could be a little bitch!?” in order to reinforce her ‘alcoholic feminist’ image.
If the film weren’t directed with such cocky confidence—McG’s penchant for over-the-top kinetics just screams “You should like this!”—then perhaps I would have allowed myself to simply ignore its ineptitude and enjoy the stars’ charisma. Having that ability would not have rendered This Means War a good movie, but it would have made for a more tolerable experience than the one that millions of moviegoers will endure this weekend.
* * *
This Means War (2012, USA). Produced by Michael Green, Simon Kinberg, Jeff Kwatinetz, James Lassiter, Brent O’Connor, Robert Simonds, Will Smith, and Lisa Stewart. Directed by McG. Written for the screen by Timothy Dowling and Simon Kinberg. Story by Timothy Dowling and Marcus Gautesen. Starring Reese Witherspoon, Chris Pine, Tom Hardy, Til Schweiger, Chelsea Handler, John Paul Ruttan, Abigail Spencer, and Angela Bassett. Distributed by 20th Century Fox. Rated PG-13, with a running time of 98 minutes.