Hostilities in This Means War are declared as two workmates compete for the affection of the same woman. The contested object is Lauren (Reese Witherspoon), a product tester who decides to apply comparative-shopping techniques to dating. Her would-be beaus, FDR (Chris Pine) and Tuck (Tom Hardy), are best friends who sit across from each other at work. The hook is that their desks are in the slate-colored guts of the CIA's Los Angeles field office—and that the boys will put the agency's entire arsenal to work in their pursuit.
Tuck has a 7-year-old son and an ex-wife and is now shy in love; FDR is a Don Juan who knows every club doorman in town and finds more than his match in Lauren, a woman ready to inform him when he's grossly overestimating the effect of the twinkle in his eye.
The cocky presumption of charm that isn't actually there is precisely the problem with action-comedy This Means War: It's a movie that acts straightaway like it has an audience eating out of its hand, while neglecting to do anything surprising or delightful to actually seduce that audience.
This Means War was directed by McG; written by Timothy Dowling and Simon Kinberg; and stars Reese Witherspoon, Chris Pine, Tom Hardy and Chelsea Handler. Rated PG-13. Click here for show times and theaters.
The problem is not the cast, exactly. In the office, Hardy does some funny passive-aggressive business with his keyboard, his nattering putdown rapport with Pine sometimes threatens to almost mesh, and Witherspoon remains one of our most game, least vain comediennes. The premise—two men abusing their access to billions of dollars' worth of spy tech to pursue a woman—is novel, even potentially promising as a satire of dating in the online intel era, with FDR and Tuck customizing their approach to Lauren's interests while anticipating and adapting their pitches to her every complaint, gathered in surveillance of Lauren's girl-talk sessions with pal Chelsea Handler. But aside from the high-concept novelty, This Means War prefers to keep things as familiar as possible at every opportunity, so as not to disorient the most timid paying customer. By the time the line "Was this some kind of bet?" arrives, it's clear this is timetable script writing, with confrontation coming right on schedule.
The familiarity of the material extends to Lauren's decision between the well-oiled lady's man and the solid, dependable type. Quite recently, Witherspoon was looking at the same choice in How Do You Know. But where James L. Brooks' great, humane film searched out emotional individuality within Owen Wilson's and Paul Rudd's bad-boy/nice-guy archetypes, This Means War's temperamentally shallow director, McG, deals strictly in readymades. (Not surprising: Terminator Salvation, McG's last movie and an attempt to rebrand himself as a director of dark and serious material, was a magpie's gathering of post-apocalyptic tropes without one iota of invention.)
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McG, who began as a director of some of the most loathsome music videos of the 1990s (Sugar Ray, Smash Mouth, "Pretty Fly [For a White Guy]"—the sort of stuff that calls for a VIP circle in hell), uses music as though it were speed, a quick bump to give a scene energy (such as the sequence in Lauren's apartment in which FDR and Tuck slink around, planting bugs just out of her sight, as she obliviously bops to Montell Jordan's "This is How We Do It"). His directorial m.o. has never evolved past trying to make every scene "pop"; consequently, he's much more comfortable crosscutting between control-room antics and date nights than digging into the intimate moments. But such constant, coercive insistence on what a rollicking good time we're having is inevitably smothering, and by the time an extended epilogue brings back the characters that you've presumably fallen in love with for a curtain call, it only works as a chance for a head start to the parking lot.
By the law of rom-coms, FDR is ripe for comeuppance for assuming he can put the same lines over on every girl—but This Means War assumes the same: that paying customers will always react to the same button-pushing emotional and musical cues, as though they were Pavlov's dogs. This arrogance is the difference between crowd-pleasing and pandering.
This review appeared in print as "This Is How We Do It: As two pals fight over Reese Witherspoon, This Means War sticks to the script."