Note: Some of this review was previously published in connection with the cinema release
I know the exact moment when I gave up on the idea that This Means War was going to be a good movie. Fairly early on Lauren (Reese Witherspoon) is shopping with her friend, Trish (Chelsea Handler), a character who only exists to give Lauren an excuse to say exactly what she’s thinking at any point in time.
However it wasn’t the lazy exposition (something the film loves to engage in) that made me realise that behind the fireworks there wasn’t much going on in This Means War, it was because the scene was set up so that the two women were doing their entire supermarket shop based on what was on the end of the aisles. They picked out detergent, looked at special offers and neither of them seemed to need anything that wasn’t right there in front of them.
I know it’s only a small point, but it’s emblematic of why This Means War is fun but feels utterly empty and is often quite annoying. It constantly seems to be hoping the audience is dumb enough to overlook the many shortcomings even it seems aware that it has. If you can’t even make people going shopping seem believable, you’ve got a problem.
The plot is pretty simple, Chris Pine and Tom Hardy are top CIA operatives FDR and Tuck (yes, that is their names), who are put on desk duty after an undercover operation ends with more bodies plunging off skyscrapers than originally envisioned. Through a vaguely convoluted series of events, they both meet the same woman, Lauren, and quickly start to fall for her. Realising they’re both after the same gal, the guys set up some gentlemanly rules to ensure their attempted wooing of Lauren (who has no idea the guys she’s seeing are best friends) doesn’t come between them, but that soon descends into all-out war when they both decide they’ve found the woman of their dreams.
The big potential problem with the film is right there in the synopsis, which is that it wants to have its cake and eat it. For example the film needs to have two male leads that you’re supposed to like equally and who you both want to end up with Lauren. However only one of them’s going to get the girl, so if she doesn’t end up with the one you’d prefer (and I’d imagine a huge amount of people will feel the movie ends up with the wrong couple), it rather undermines what’s gone before. The DVD includes three alternate endings, two of which conclude with completely different romantic outcomes (the third is a completely different ending to the one in the film, while the others are a variation on what we see). It underlines the movie’s issues, as if it’s reasonable for various completely different couplings to occur at the end, you’re almost asking for a decent chunk of the audience to end up disappointed.
The film also asks you to go along with the guys lying to the woman they’re dating and diverting government funds so they can illegally stalk her, and then to just laugh along rather than questioning what is actually a rather unpleasant situation.
It might just about be possible to overlook these plot flaws it weren’t for a feeling there’s an underlying misogyny to what’s going on. The film barely questions the guys’ actions, as it take the idea that all’s fair in love and war very seriously – as long as you’re a man – but seems inordinately worried people will think Lauren is some sort of uber-slut because she’s dating two guys at once. It constantly has her justifying actions that seemed reasonable to start with, while the guy’s utterly reprehensible behaviour goes unchecked.
There is undoubtedly some fun to be had with This Means War, as there are a few good action sequences and there’s certainly a spark between Hardy and Pine. The latter is slightly saddled with an asshole of a character, but he just about manages to use his winning smile to make FDR seem more misguided cad with a heart than out and out tosser. Hardy meanwhile is great, managing to be both sweet and self-effacing, as well as utterly convincing as a total badass spy – if Daniel Craig steps aside as 007, I know who I’m voting for as the next James Bond.
However no amount of surface shine and witty banter between the male leads can hide the fact that behind the veneer the whole thing is based on a rather dodgy premise and is put together in a way that assumes the audience will either not see or will be willing to ignore how dumb so much of it is. Pine and Hardy make a good on-screen duo, but if they ever team up again, they need a better vehicle than this. As mentioned though, the surface is nice and sparkly, so if that’s all you ask for from a film, it’ll do.
Overall Verdict: Good chemistry between the leads and a polished veneer can’t hide the fact This Means War is hoping the audience will ignore laziness, stupidity and a whiff of sexism.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac