Directed by: McG
Premise: Two CIA operatives (Chris Pine and Tom Hardy) find themselves dating the same woman (Reese Witherspoon). The men use their intelligence assets to foil each other.
What Works: This Means War is an attempt to make a date movie with overlapping appeal between romance and action oriented audiences and it more or less succeeds. The script was co-written by Timothy Dowling and Simon Kinberg; the latter was the writer of the 2005 film Mr. & Mrs. Smith and This Means War is very much like that picture in that it mixes action with laughs and romance. Much of the comedy is found in the banter between Chris Pine and Tom Hardy as the CIA operatives. The bro-mance between the two men is fun to watch and the scenes in which they use spy technology to thwart each other’s plans are the highlight of the film. The whole picture has a good-humored feel about it that makes it enjoyable.
What Doesn’t: This Means War is undemanding of its audience and although it has an affable tone it is also a very lazily made picture. This Means War interpolates a lot of the conventions and clichés of spy thrillers, buddy action pictures, and romantic comedies but it does not set those conventions against one another. Of those three genres, This Means War is predominantly a rom-com and all of the standard clichés apply: the workaholic single girl, the sassy female best friend, the wild bachelor tamed by love, attempts at courtship that in real life would be called stalking, and the snowballing white lie that undermines the relationship. Because the film works its way through all of these familiar beats and character types and fails to use the action to offset them, This Means War works itself out as a standard romantic comedy and the bulk of the story is predictable. There just isn’t much heart or romantic tension to the dueling courtships. Things only get intense in the ending but there is never a moment for Witherspoon’s character to make a decisive choice. The climax is also problematic for the relationship between the two men as the film makes too many reversals too quickly. The men’s friendship is undone through their competition, but just moments after their big blowout the two are back in action again and reunite for no reason in particular. This picture needs more action or at least a better balance between the action and the romance. In that case, it is helpful to compare This Means War to True Lies, which similarly married domestic and espionage plotlines. Like True Lies, This Means War begins with an action set piece that is intended to establish characters and sets up the violent conflicts that will drive the climax of the picture. But This Means War fails to adequately develop the terrorist threat throughout the middle of the story and when that threat comes back to transition the film toward the climax it is unclear who is after the CIA operatives and these antagonists have no credibility as villains. That results in an ending in which our heroes, who have been each other’s worst enemies for most of the film, fire their guns at random, anonymous bad guys and that is a very unsatisfying conclusion. But the biggest determinant to how viewers may feel about This Means War will rest on the female lead, played by Reese Witherspoon. The decisions that her character makes, while egged on by her best friend, could very well divide an audience. Some might see her as an empowered, contemporary woman while others might find her selfish or just another passive female character caught in a false dilemma between two men, not unlike Bella Swan of the Twilight pictures. Witherspoon has such a likable screen presence that she mostly manages to get away with it but there is the nagging sense that her character is mostly along for the ride. That is especially true in the ending in which Pine and Hardy’s characters do all the driving and shooting while Witherspoon sits in the car. That isn’t much differant than a lot of action films, including True Lies, in which female characters sit and look pretty while the men save the day, but when the whole film is built around this woman’s choices it is disappointing to find her character so inert.
Bottom Line: This Means War is an enjoyable film in a lowest common denominator kind of way. It isn’t a great movie. In some ways it is barely even a good one. But the picture is clearly trying to let loose and have fun and actors Chris Pine, Tom Hardy, and Reese Witherspoon are so watchable that the film qualifies as a fun timewaster.
Episode: #377 (February 26, 2012)