As the spy comedy film has shown us over the years, genre hybrids can be tough to pull off, especially when filmmakers insist on regurgitating the same hackneyed product time and time again. This Means War, a shameless patchwork of better albeit still questionable fare, represents Hollywood at some of its most tacky, idiotic and out-of-step. That talented actors like the three leads – two of whom in Tom Hardy and Chris Pine are rising stars, no less – would waste their time with something so cynical is absolutely baffling.
The ever-reliable stamp of quality that is McG (Charlie’s Angels, We Are Marshall, Terminator Salvation) plastered over the credits at least lets us down gently as the film begins, as does an opening shot, boasting a shoddy CGI model of a helicopter which clues us in to the technical dopiness of what is to follow (a legitimate surprise, as McG’s Terminator, if nothing else, was a visual feast). In fact, the entire opening scene is a head-scratcher; kicking-off with almost no establishing dialogue whatsoever, as CIA agents FDR (Chris Pine) and Tuck (Tom Hardy) pursue bland filler-villain-du-jour Heinrich (Til Schweiger). A shootout ensues on a rooftop, but you’ll be lucky to know what’s going on at all, because McG’s overly hyperactive camerawork and slapdash editing make Paul Greengrass’s shooting methods seem like those of Béla Tarr. Horrendous blue screen also swathes everything in a disorientating, ugly blur, making one wonder, why didn’t they just shoot this thing on a real rooftop with safety nets or something?
From here we get the obligatory scene ripped from just about every buddy cop film ever made, but most memorably Bad Boys 2, as the duo are chewed out by their boss for subverting protocol and causing mass property damage. We then meet Lauren (Reese Witherspoon), a woman who recent broke up with her boyfriend and is on the prowl for a new man, meeting both FDR and Tuck within a short space of each other, and deciding at the behest of her friend, Trish (Chelsea Handler), to date them both. After a laboured set-up that we’ve all seen in the trailers anyway, we finally get to the clincher moment; FDR and Tuck both realise they are dating the same woman, and while they agree to be gentlemen about it and let her decide, the dirty tactics soon enough begin, with each utilising their expert spy skills to outwit and snoop on the other.
Get over the excruciatingly long set-up and what you still have here is a depressingly mild, largely unfunny rom-com which snatch-and-grabs the easy jokes and lame sight gags while failing to make of its charming leads much charming whatsoever. Plenty of promise abounds once Lauren begins to cursorily consider the morality of dating two men at once, but in the interest of a homogeneous, commercial viable Hollywood film, she cannot of course be a confident, outgoing woman, and for the sake of the date night crowd, she instead anguishes over it incessantly while not at all developing as a character.
Its dramatic impotence might have been tolerable if the film’s comic or action-based components worked whatsoever, but McG’s stultifyingly inept direction denies that entirely, utilising jarringly abrupt fade-outs and peculiar sound editing which kills the pacing dead again and again. Countless scenes meanwhile make no sense whatsoever; one has Lauren arriving to work with everyone acting strangely, and going to her her computer to see that Trish has made her an online dating profile. How did this show up on her computer? Who turned her computer on and logged her in? Who loaded up the dating profile? It does not follow. Only in one scene does McG display any real flair as a helmer, a single-take pass through Lauren’s home as FDR and Tuck plant surveillance devices, but you’ll probably be so distracted by both the pointless fade-to-black and the realisation that these guys are in fact quite creepy, that it’s hard to appreciate those rare technical flourishes either.
Tone is also an issue here; FDR and Tuck are slick action heroes who invincibly bound through action scenes, stopping enemies dead with a bloodless efficiency that one expects would render their coldness harmless. That Tuck is especially so emotionally warm and even a bit sappy during the scenes with Lauren is an obviously humourous attempt to distinguish him from his kick-ass CIA demeanour, but it creates a tonal chasm, because the frenetic and romantic scenes feel so distinctly like parts of two very different films. There is no attempt to mesh the two convincingly as in, say, Mr and Mrs. Smith, or the genre’s best effort to date, True Lies. That the third act has Lauren being assailed by Heinrich and his crew is stunningly predictable, shot through with zero effort from a dramatic level, reducing the tension to absolutely nil.
The idiocy of the characters is one thing, cemented best by a head-smackingly insulting scene in which Lauren does not realise Tuck has just shot down a drone plane while she is driving. Something else is the contempt with which McG treats the audience, not following through on the technical side; when Tuck’s son notices him in a car chase on TV, we wonder how, given that the news cameras do not once zoom in on his face. It is as though the entire second-unit work was irreparably damaged in a fire or something, because so much bridging material feels lost here.
It’s a genre that musters low expectations, yet This Means War can’t even coast on its sheer charm precisely because the script denies the leads any sort of frisson whatsoever. It is a sterile, commercial calculation, and one which will play well only to the most undemanding of date night audiences, likely more interested in who they are sitting next to than what is occurring on-screen. Rent-a-hack McG directs this brain-damaged screenplay with the skill of a particularly deficient farm animal, and humiliates three talented actors in the process.
This Means War is released in UK cinemas today.