'This Means War' Review: Star Charisma Can't Excuse This Cynical Fantasy

As the credits rolled, I exited This Means War thinking "what a depressing piece of garbage," even as I realized that a summation like that might not be completely fair. The film, directed by McG, does have some good scenes featuring Chris Pine, Tom Hardy, Reese Witherspoon and Chelsea Handler. There are times when Pine and Hardy have some great, genuine chemistry. More than once, I laughed loud enough that I can never claim the movie is not funny.

With a little bit of tweaking, This Means War could be a pretty cutting vision of a certain cavalier type of romantic relationship. Without a lot of work it could even be the best gay romance action movie we've ever seen.

But I'm not the film's editor, and I can't reshape it, and This Means War is not those things. Despite the occasional explosion of chemistry, it is a tremendously cynical enterprise. It is also a flat and cheap-looking movie, though that's more a passing observation than a deep criticism; there are plenty of cheap-looking movies for which I'd go to bat. I will not, however, go to bat for McG's weird action romcom.

Lifelong best friends FDR (Pine) and Tuck (Hardy) are agents in the least-likely vision of the CIA I've seen since, well, ever. Their CIA is a cinderblock office with a lot of flat-screen displays and high-tech toys, in which Angela Bassett, edited down to what might be a career-low appearance, ineffectually orders the staff to chase bad guys like Heinrich (Til Schweiger).

FDR is the player and Tuck is the would-be family man who blew his chance with his first wife. When they both meet Lauren (a charming Witherspoon) the guys go head over heels for her. Realizing that they're both after the same girl, they make the most ungentlemanly 'gentleman's agreement' ever. That is, since she's seemingly OK with dating both guys, they'll both make a play for the lady — without clueing her in — and may the best man win.

Because this is a big fantasy, FDR and Tuck don't simply do typical nice-romantic-sexy guy stuff. Rather, they use all the CIA infrastructure at their disposal to find out what Lauren likes, the better to tailor their romantic attentions. That infrastructure includes bugs, cell phone tracing, spy satellites and a staff that is easily coerced into cooperating. There's even a Cyrano de Bergerac-style moment where one of the guys arranges a private showing of Gustav Klimt paintings, and rattles off commentary piped into his earpiece by CIA dweebs back at the office.

Is that all super-creepy, or is it just me? Now, let's not be naive. Everyone who is trying to win over a person they're interested in will probably tailor their approach based on that person's interests. But nothing in Tuck and FDR's approach comes across as genuine; at a certain point they're just trying to win, rather than forging a connection. Like I said, cynical as hell. There's no objective reality in which their actions are OK. In fact, the only subjective realities in which their actions are acceptable is their own. Which is a nice way to say: these guys are dicks. But they're also the heroes, and we're meant to be invested in their competition.

In case that general approach doesn't sound stalker-ish enough, the best-directed scene in the film is a sequence in which Pine and Hardy infiltrate Lauren's apartment... while she is home, cooking and goofing around. It's a well-made sequence, with a continuous shot tracking the three actors as they are choreographed to move around one another in something like a dance. FDR and Tuck spin through the shadows as they check out all of Lauren's stuff, the better to target-market their affections. Romance!

And, yeah, I'll admit there are times when Pine and Hardy look like they're having a grand old time. They're certainly capable when an action scene rolls around, and both of them have personality to spare when it comes to wooing Witherspooon. Granted, they're so friendly that the movie really should have been rewritten to find them in love with each other. (Hardy even joked about it at the film's press junket.) The bromance is thick. Though their chemistry takes some time to develop, there's no way to deny that Pine and Hardy make a good pair.

It's strange, however, seeing Tom Hardy directed to play 'normal' as Tuck. The first act is like a Hardy-themed Mythbusters episode that seeks to disprove all of his interesting qualities. It doesn't succeed; eventually Tuck turns into a slightly more interesting guy, and Hardy's burgeoning mythology is left (mostly) intact.

Reese Witherspoon rises to their energy level, and is often likeable. But here's the problem: Lauren starts off almost strong, and quickly becomes an awful caricature. Emotionally she's uncertain, but she's great at a job that requires analytic thinking, and she is clearly a problem-solver. There's even a point early on where Lauren calls FDR on his slick bullshit charm; in that moment I thought the movie might really have potential. But she sells herself out almost immediately afterward, falling right into FDR's arms, and for the rest of the movie her brain is mush. FDR and Tuck spend the whole movie leveraging technology and problem-solving skills to c**k-block one another and score with Lauren, but she never even seems to Google these dudes.

Every once in a while a CIA-related plot kicks into action, but the evil intent of Til Schweiger's character plays very much like a tacked-on means to enhance the film's paper-thin suspense. The romantic and CIA plot threads are almost literally smashed together in a climactic sequence that would register as laughably preposterous, if only the rest of the film hadn't already established that This Means War is a cartoonish delusion in which Schweiger's violent criminal ranks a distant third on the film's roster of awful, insane people.

/Film rating: 3 out of 10