In This Means War – a stylish action/rom-com hybrid from director McG – Tom Hardy (The Dark Knight Rises) and Chris Pine (Star Trek) star as CIA operatives whose close friendship is strained by the fires of romantic rivalry. Best pals FDR (Pine) and Tuck (Hardy) are equally accomplished at the spy game but their fortunes diverge dramatically in the dating realm: FDR (so nicknamed for his obvious resemblance to our 32nd president) is a smooth-talking player with an endless string of conquests while Tuck is a straight-laced introvert whose love life has stalled since his divorce. Enter Lauren (Reese Witherspoon) a pretty plucky consumer-products evaluator who piques both their interests in separate unrelated encounters. Tuck meets her via an online-dating site FDR at a video-rental store. (That Lauren is tech-savvy enough to date online but still rents movies in video stores is either a testament to her fascinating mix of contradictions or more likely an example of lazy screenwriting.)
When Tuck and FDR realize they’re pursuing the same girl it sparks their respective competitive natures and they decide to make a friendly game of it. But what begins as a good-natured rivalry swiftly devolves into romantic bloodsport with both men using the vast array of espionage tools at their disposal – from digital surveillance to poison darts – to gain an edge in the battle for Lauren’s affections. If her constitutional rights happen to be violated repeatedly in the process then so be it.
Lauren for her part remains oblivious to the clandestine machinations of her dueling suitors and happily basks in the sudden attention from two gorgeous men. Herein we find the Reese Witherspoon Dilemma: While certainly desirable Lauren is far from the irresistible Helen of Troy type that would inspire the likes of Tuck and FDR to risk their friendship their careers and potential incarceration for. At several points in This Means War I found myself wondering if there were no other peppy blondes in Los Angeles (where the film is primarily set) for these men to pursue. Then again this is a film that wishes us to believe that Tom Hardy would have trouble finding a date so perhaps plausibility is not its strong point.
When Lauren needs advice she looks to her boozy foul-mouthed best friend Trish (Chelsea Handler). Essentially an extension of Handler’s talk-show persona – an acquired taste if there ever was one – Trish’s dialogue consists almost exclusively of filthy one-liners delivered in rapid-fire succession. Handler does have some choice lines – indeed they’re practically the centerpiece of This Means War’s ad campaign – but the film derives the bulk of its humor from the outrageous lengths Tuck and FDR go to sabotage each others’ efforts a raucous game of spy-versus-spy that carries the film long after Handler’s shtick has grown stale.
Business occasionally intrudes upon matters in the guise of Heinrich (Til Schweiger) a Teutonic arms dealer bent on revenge for the death of his brother. The subplot is largely an afterthought existing primarily as a means to provide third-act fireworks – and to allow McGenius an outlet for his ADD-inspired aesthetic proclivities. The film’s action scenes are edited in such a manic quick-cut fashion that they become almost laughably incoherent. In fairness to McG he does stage a rather marvelous sequence in the middle of the film in which Tuck and FDR surreptitiously skulk about Lauren's apartment unaware of each other's presence carefully avoiding detection by Lauren who grooves absentmindedly to Montel Jordan's "This Is How We Do It." The whole scene unfolds in one continuous take – or is at least craftily constructed to appear as such – captured by one very agile steadicam operator.
Whatever his flaws as a director McG is at least smart enough to know how much a witty script and appealing leads can compensate for a film’s structural and logical deficiencies. He proved as much with Charlie’s Angels a film that enjoys a permanent spot on many a critic’s Guilty Pleasures list and does so again with This Means War. The film coasts on the chemistry of its three co-stars and only runs into trouble when the time comes to resolve its romantic competition which by the end has driven its male protagonists to engage in all manner of underhanded and duplicitous activities. This Means War being a commercial film – and likely an expensive one at that – Witherspoon's heroine is mandated to make a choice and McG all but sidesteps the whole thorny matter of Tuck and FDR’s unwavering dishonesty not to mention their craven disregard for her privacy. (They regularly eavesdrop on her activities.) For all their obvious charms the truth is that neither deserves Lauren – or anything other than a lengthy jail sentence for that matter.
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When a niche director or a beloved cult film actor fades from the spotlight, it’s unfortunate. But when one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, someone who once displayed major box office might, goes AWOL, it borders on bizarre.
Yes, there is something to be said for every actor having their heyday and while it’s true that it’s only been a few years since his last film, we are still puzzled by the disappearance of Kurt Russell.
Why We Love Him
Kurt Russell has been a star nearly his entire life. He got his start doing a number of television series as a child. Then, in the late ‘60s/early ‘70s, Disney took notice of this talented youngster and Russell starred in several of their live-action family films including The Horse in the Gray Flannel Suit, The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, The Barefoot Executive, and Superdad. He took a few other gigs here and there but up until the end of the 70s, much of his revenue came from the Walt Disney Corporation. But just when it seemed he would be a squeaky clean mouseketeer forever, along came John Carpenter.
In 1981, Russell was cast as one of cinema’s premier badasses, Snake Plissken, in Carpenter’s dystopian action flick Escape from New York. Russell displayed so much swagger and hard-edged disdain for authority that, coupled with his best vocal impression of Clint Eastwood, allowed for his complete reinvention in the eyes of Hollywood. He would follow this up with two more phenomenal Carpenter collaborations: The Thing and Big Trouble in Little China. Russell was not only proving his merits as a leading man, but also as an action hero.
In the 90s, Russell padded out his action hero resume with even more unforgettable roles. First he played firefighter Bull McCaffrey in Ron Howard’s blazing action drama Backdraft. Next, he portrayed legendary lawman Wyatt Earp in 1993’s Tombstone; my favorite of Russell’s films to not be directed by John Carpenter. He then won the lead role of Col. Jack O’Neil in Stargate; a film that would later spawn a successful television series in which Russell’s character was played by MacGyver star Richard Dean Anderson. Then in 1996 he played an analyst who had to help take down a plane full of terrorists in Executive Decision; a film that, maybe more so than any since Escape from New York, would become synonymous with Russell himself.
What Happened to Him?
Russell’s career hit a bit of skid right at the end of the 1990s. It began with a revisit to the mantle of Snake Plissken in the abysmally silly and incredibly disappointing sequel Escape from L.A. In what I’ve deemed the “insult to injury trio,” we were then treated to Breakdown, Soldier, and 3000 Miles to Graceland. Seemingly seeking to shake off this cavalcade of failures, Russell returned to the studio that had made him a household name so many years prior. In 2004 he appeared in Miracle playing the coach of the 1980 U.S.A. men’s Olympic hockey team that shocked the world when they upset the Soviet Union. The next year he played superhero and father The Commander in the teen comedy Sky High. Both strong films and Russell was fantastic in each one.
Then, in 2007, Russell got the chance to make a comeback and a return to the darker action hero mold that had so informed his onscreen persona years before. With the help of Quentin Tarantino, a man accustomed to resurrecting careers (see John Travolta in Pulp Fiction), Russell brought to life the sinister Stuntman Mike in Death Proof; one half of the throwback exploitation anthology Grindhouse. Stuntman Mike was as charming as he was sadistic and his scenes with real life stuntwoman Zoe Bell amount to some of the best driving sequences on film.
Where’s He Been?
But somehow, despite this apparent resurgence, Russell still has not been seen in a film in four years. Again, this may seem a brief absence, but with the immense body of blockbuster films and memorable characters to his name, it’s an unusual one.
Since 1983, Russell has been involved with actress Goldie Hawn and together they have a child and Russell has another by a previous marriage. He’s also served as the father figure to Kate Hudson, Hawn’s daughter by a previous marriage, so he’s got plenty of fatherly duties to keep him busy. But beyond that conjecture, it’s hard to pin down the source of this particular acting sabbatical.
Thankfully the sabbatical is not permanent and Russell has two projects in the works. The first is called Touchback and revolves around a once-promising high school athlete reflecting on his life after an injury thwarted his dreams almost two decades before. The second is a film called Waco, a retelling of the infamous showdown between FBI agents and cult leader David Koresh. Both sound like interesting roles and hopefully at least one of them will return Russell to the mainstream success he so richly deserves.