Most Hollywood romances strive for heartfelt profundity and end up looking like contrived messes. The great irony of This Means War is how it announces itself as magnificently delirious junk and turns out to know quite a bit about contemporary relationships. The flick is big, dumb, commercial trash--make no mistake about it--but trash can have its perks, especially doozies about the human condition that more serious films would be too self-preserved to indulge in. Some will find the movie so preposterous that they’ll be convinced it was made by Martians, but from where I sit, its really no less contrived that a Nicholas Sparks adaptation. And its more informed about how men and women relate to one another. Which is funny.
The film centers around two CIA agents who are not only the best at their jobs, but also the best of friends. FDR (Chris Pine) is a slick ladies man who uses his charms to get through any situation, while Tuck (Tom Hardy) is a hardened professional still reeling from being a divorced dad. When they’re not surviving shoot-outs and tracking a global baddie (Til Schweiger), the fellas ponder the future of their love lives. How does one go about dating when you’re a CIA Agent?
One day, the best buds are thrilled to discover that they both have their eyes on their very own lovely lady. Unfortunately, it turns out they’ve targeted the same exact woman: Lauren (Reese Witherspoon), a working gal frustrated by her loneliness who decides to indulge in both of the sweet hunks throwing their affections her way, although she’s unaware that they even know each other. Upon discovering this complication, the boys decided to conduct a gentleman’s wager: both of them will try their charming best to win Lauren’s heart without standing in each other’s way, allowing the best man to triumph naturally. Things start easily enough, but pretty soon the agents are running surveillance and wreaking havoc on each other’s dates, employing such dirty tricks as indoor sprinklers and tranquilizer darts. Pretty soon, this vicious battle runs the risk of destroying their friendship, jobs, and even their lives.
Of course This Means War already had a target on its back once cinephiles caught word that it was in the hands of McG, the music video maestro who unleashed that bubbly, sugar rush of a Charlie’s Angels update on a bewildered world back in 2000. He took a fairly simple TV premise about three female detectives and amped it up to a level of pop overkill so fluffy and candy-coated that it quickly became the cinematic equivalent of diabetes. McG knew he’d be serving up commercial pop, so he raised the content to such a hyperbolic level of style--with babelicious leads reveling in the male gaze and implausible action stunts that make The Matrix look like The Hurt Locker--that it essentially became a cartoon for 16-year-old girls. The irony, however, is that the film is probably more memorable than if the adaptation were a straight-forward, sobering detective story (a theory strengthened by the recent cancellation of a sensible-minded series remake of Charlie’s Angels on ABC). Plus, there was a certain affection for the female leads in the way the film delved into the trivialities of their love lives, giving us a sneaky peak at modern females that feels unfortunately rare in blockbuster showcases. After a same-deal Charlie’s Angels sequel, McG aspired to dignity by churning out the heartfelt We Are Marshall and the worthless Terminator: Salvation. Now, he’s back to his old pop tricks in This Means War and the result feels like a chubby kid whose returned to his favorite candy store after a wistful sabbatical.
What most people find tiresome yet I find charming about his filmmaking is how he appears to see the world through the sunny spectacles of an uncultured teenager raised on a steady diet of Americana pop. The telltale sign is how This Means War returns to the same dreamy California landscape that was prominent in the Charlie’s Angels films. Of course, this isn’t the disillusioned California of, say, Pulp Fiction, but that magical fantasy one that pre-pubescents believe is a place where any dream can come true, one filled with dates to the circus and workplaces that look like Willy Wonka’s offices. This all may be nonsense, but at least its all his nonsense. After trying to be John G. Avildsen and James Cameron, McG returns to his fancy-free playland overflowing with an adolescent idealism that is undeniably his style. It takes an astonishing detachment to preserve such a teeny-bopper worldview all the way into adulthood while most of us have adjusted our minds to our maturity. What most people don’t realize is that seeing the adult world through the eyes of a junior-high schooler can sometimes illuminate grown-up afflictions in shrewder ways than serious dramas could. If only McG had made one of his CIA Agents a conflicted sex addict, then maybe Steve McQueen could stumble upon what was missing from Shame.
So the film is a messy collage of clunky action scenes, romantic cuteness, and gags that would just make the cut on a sitcom. Yet read between the lines, and you’ll find nifty insights on the peculiar social world we live in now. The biggest surprise for me is the fact that the women are the smartest characters in the entire film. Most romantic comedies treat ladies as cutesy bimbos and find subtle ways to punish them for any signs of independence. The level-headed delight in which Lauren has her beefcakes and eats them too is kind of refreshing, and the feminist musings of her friend Trish is astoundingly not tired comic relief, but pretty much sounds like snappy advice any smart woman would give to her best friend. The idea of FDR and Tuck surveillancing Lauren with the latest technology may seem creepy, but when you think about the cyber stalking most people do nowadays with online social networks, you realize the duo’s tabs are pretty accurate by today’s standards. And you know how whenever two attractive males play best friends in a movie, there’s always talk of homoerotic undertones? Well FDR and Tuck come so close to boyfriends status that they make J. Edgar Hoover and Clyde Tolson look like Tom Hanks and Wilson the Volleyball kicking it on a beach. There were moments where they talked so close to each other’s faces that I honestly suspected they were about to kiss (a throwaway line about Tuck having once seen FDR’s penis while on assignment is also a giveaway hint). The duo’s curiously intimate hang-outs and fierce competitiveness to land a girlfriend probably says more about today’s bromances than most dudes are willing to admit.
If nothing else, This Means War is a big excuse for new-age actors to try on movie star glamour and see how it fits. Of course any critic who questions why two men would fight over Reese Witherspoon is either A) Dumb or B) Blind. The miracle here is that Witherspoon isn’t just drummed up to be a sex object but is given plenty of room to be a modern day independent woman. Not only is she allowed to be silly AND smart, but the fact that she treats seeing two men as a logical way to find romantic happiness is pretty damn enthralling. Lauren Bacall may have wanted to tweak this fetching angle up a bit, but it sure smokes Katherine Heigel’s boneheaded characterizations. Since Tom Hardy is such a dedicated method chameleon who shines in dramas, its kind of a thrill to see him doing his thing in Hollywood fluff. Of course he can do such trifle in his sleep, yet his rugged and internal characterization of a shell-shocked romantic is pretty damn inventive. I just wish Hardy’s character was written with a lighter touch to allow his charms to be jacked up full wattage, for he would probably set fire to the screen. Yet if you want charisma in hyper-drive, Chris Pine could be enough for anyone. In an era in which humble everymen have become the new screen idols, seeing a mega-smooth slickster like Pine is like a jolt of old school awesomeness. Most filmmakers and performers fumble hopelessly nowadays with smoldering ladykillers, but Pine is the real deal. When Paul Newman died, I said there will never be another like him, but man, is Pine putting up one hell of a fight!
Every once in a while, we like to eat frosting right out of the jar without any cake at all. Watching This Means War is the cinematic equivalent of doing the same thing. People who condemn this movie for being too dumb and implausible are making the dreary mistake of taking this material seriously. Sure, if this idea were played more straight-faced, we’d probably have a flick of loaded dialogue and clever deceptions that could rank with David Mamet’s best. But I can’t deny that the sugar-coated treats relentlessly dished out here left me with a big, stupid grin on my face. And the fact that McG originally planned to release different alternate endings to different theaters showing the film in the style of Clue only proves that it was designed specifically to cause such a response.
I think the essential effect of the film can be summed up in one aspect: FDR’s apartment. You’d think most CIA Agents would keep a low profile in their private lives, yet FDR has a tricked out apartment that features a see-through glass swimming pool encasing his entire roof. Never do you see such a thing in real life, but its so cool to look at! Its not necessary at all, but how often do you get to see something so insanely stylish?