With all due respect to General William Tecumseh Sherman, This Mean War isn’t hell. It just isn’t as fun as the various trailers and commercials make it out to be.
If you’ve seen the ads, you basically know all War has to offer. And if you haven’t, you’ll still be able to guess exactly where War is heading. Best friends Tuck (Tom Hardy) and FDR (Chris Pine) are the finest agents the CIA has to offer. But when a series of coincidences – and some sloppy screenwriting shortcuts – have them both dating a pretty product tester named Lauren (Reese Witherspoon), the guys wage a “friendly” competition to see who can win the woman’s hand.
More silly than chauvinistic, This Means War can’t decide if it’s an action-thriller with a little romance mixed in, or a formulaic rom-com with one or two memorable action set pieces. Thanks to its constant wavering and lack of clear-cut direction, it whiffs completely on both potential premises.
Let’s take a moment and lament the loss of a noteworthy action comedy, because the pieces appear to be in play for a legitimate winner cut from the cloth of 48 Hours, Lethal Weapon or, at the very least, Tango & Cash. War director McG might be coming off of 2009’s somber, dour Terminator: Salvation, but he has two lightweight Charlie’s Angels adventures on his resume, and he’s certainly capable of cranking out a lightweight lark. A little bit of the frivolous helium he injected into the goofy Angels series might have helped lift War off the ground, because this humorless bird rarely takes flight over its near-two-hour run.
Hardy and Pine do have the combustible chemistry needed for a yin-yang buddy comedy. A smart studio executive would hand these two a Shane Black script, then sit back and count the money as it came rolling in. Pine continues to show off the loose charm and natural charisma that he used to carry J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek reboot. It’s Hardy, though, who shows off a previously unseen sense of humor and easygoing personality. At the very least, I’m glad War drew out that side of the talented Warrior and Bronson star before Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises -- and the long, dark shadow of Bane – swallows up his future career options.
Too bad Tuck and FDR’s pursuit of a Russian baddie (Til Schweiger) – and their unmistakably flirtatious banter – has to be shelved every couple of minutes so screenwriters Timothy Dowling and Simon Kinberg can belabor the ludicrous love triangle that hangs around this picture’s neck like an anchor. There’s a solid concept at play here, with secret agents using the full resources of the CIA to investigate a girl they want to know a little better. But War doesn’t make Lauren anything more than a beautiful piece of meat who needs a crass sidekick (Chelsea Handler) to tell her how to think, act and feel. The women are an afterthought in War. Witherspoon poses adorably but can’t manage much else from her poorly developed part. And Handler hammers the same booze-soaked note she brings to virtually every project. The best screenplays have a way of snapping together, like small pieces of a large puzzle. When War reaches a narrative obstacle it can’t explain, it cuts its puzzle pieces in half, then glues them back together. Sloppily.
There is one thing that caught my eye, though, and it bears mentioning. Instead of coming up with at least one halfway-decent action sequence, McG pays attention to the movies that are playing in television screens in the background of scenes. I spotted Young Frankenstein, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and, in a lengthy scene, James Cameron’s Titanic. It might be the only time I can think of that the movies playing away from the action were infinitely better than the film in which they are being played.