Hostilities in This Means War are declared as two workmates compete for the affection of the same woman. The contested objective 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 seven-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 who 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.
The problem is not the cast, exactly. In the office, Hardy does some funny passive-aggressive business with his keyboard, his nattering put-down rapport with Pine sometimes threatens almost to mesh, and Witherspoon remains one of our most game, least vain comediennes. The premise—two men abusing their access to billions of dollars 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 that 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 ladies’ 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’s great, humane film searched out emotional individuality within Owen Wilson 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.)
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 like speed, a quick bump to give a scene energy (like the sequence in Lauren’s apartment where 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: an audience that will always react to the same button-pushing emotional and musical cues, like Pavlov’s dogs. This arrogance is the difference between crowd-pleasing and pandering.