Film review: This Means War (12A)

With wafer-thin characters and a plot that careers from A to B in the stupidest way possible, McG’s spy caper is one to avoid

The domestic spy movie action rom-com is the sort of hybrid genre Hollywood keeps attempting to pull off, despite the fact that the resulting films tend to reduce their stars to squabbling, irritating dullards.

And so it proves with This Means War, a film with none of the sly brilliance of Grosse Point Blank (this mini genre’s only masterpiece), nor the heat-generating blockbuster coupling of the otherwise slack Brad Pitt/Angelina Jolie vehicle Mr & Mrs Smith (whose success is the main reason these films keep getting made).

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Instead, This Means War sends Tom Hardy, Chris Pine and Reese Witherspoon the way of Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz in Knight and Day, and Katherine Heigl and Ashton Kutcher in Killers. Which is to say: it strings together a series of mostly incoherent action set-pieces with bickering banter while imagining that secret agents deploying their skills to win the affections of a woman are automatically amusing.

They’re not, especially when surveillance techniques are used to perv on people having uncomfortable-looking sex on sinktops, or to ogle Witherspoon shaking her bum while making popcorn and settling down to watch Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

This latter scene is meant to illustrate the pathetic nature of Witherspoon’s character, Lauren, by showing how her unlucky-in-love market researcher secretly yearns for excitement as she spends another Friday evening alone watching a film in which the only significant female character is whisked away on a dangerous adventure by two manly best friends. All it really does, however, is expose how inadequate the film’s high-concept premise is, as she’s thrown into a love triangle with two thinly conceived government agents.

This happens after Lauren’s older, married, foul-mouthed best friend (the charmless Chelsea Handler) posts a provocative profile of her on a dating website. Her photo, together with the elaborate list of sexually suggestive likes and dislikes her friend has kindly listed for all the world to see, soon attracts the attentions of an inexplicably British CIA agent called Tuck (Hardy). Tuck’s own failed relationship with his estranged wife and son has left him with a big hole in his life, that just isn’t being filled by indiscriminately killing bad guys at glamorous parties with his best friend and colleague FDR (Pine).

Because the film needs to contrive a way to set these friends against each other quickly, it nonsensically sends FDR along on Lauren and Tuck’s first date under the dubious auspices that it might be a trap set by the vengeance-seeking arms dealer (Til Schweiger) whose brother he and Tuck recently threw off a rooftop. Even though FDR is supposed to be watching out for his boy, he still manages to inadvertently hit on Lauren moments after her and Tuck’s date has ended, thus beginning a tedious, highly specious Spy-vs-Spy-style caper after the pair of them make a promptly broken gentleman’s agreement not to get in each other’s way as they each separately try to win Lauren’s affections.

As chop-shopped premises go, it’s the sort of thing that might have had some mileage had it been bold enough to make the blatant homoerotic subtext of Tuck and FDR’s relationship literal. Hardy’s and Pine’s overly groomed smoothness would certainly have lent themselves to pushing things a bit further in this respect, particularly since neither of them generate much chemistry with Witherspoon. But this is a film by McG, whose only proven interests in defying convention are in the fields of abbreviated monikers and narrative coherence (he directed the Charlie’s Angels films, after all).

Here he deploys his usual cut-to-ribbons editing approach and blatant disregard for plot and character logic to get us from point A to point B in the loudest, stupidest way possible. The film’s only moments of relief come when he inadvertently leaves Hardy with enough room to flash some of the charisma that has helped him rocket onto the A-list in the last couple of years.

Sadly, Pine and Witherspoon have no such luck, with the latter particularly under-served by a weakly written role that relies on her to project raw sexuality (not one of her strong suits) instead of using her sharp comic instincts. In the end This Means War simply does what any bad blockbuster does: deploy an attrition-like assault on the senses. Resistance is a must.

Rating: **

This Means War (12A)

Directed by: MCG

Starring: Chris Pine, Tom Hardy, Reese Witherspoon, Chelsea Handler