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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With stories like this who even needs the “Inspired by true events” shield? Primeval tells of the world’s most prolific killer Gustave. You see Gustave is a crocodile and he remains at large to this day. His thirst for human blood goes unpublicized until he chows down on a white woman at which point an American newsman Tim Manfrey (Dominic Purcell) his cameraman Steven (Orlando Jones) and TV personality Aviva (Brooke Langton) head down to Burundi Africa where they hope to document the capture of Gustave. They’re joined by a wildlife preservationist of sorts (Gideon Emery)—a rare breed in a post-Steve Irwin world—who doesn’t want to harm Gustave. The deep jungles of Africa become a veritable obstacle course when the locals embroiled in a long-standing civil war and unwilling to have some damn Yankees televising their homeland stand in the crew’s way not to mention Gustave proving an evasive 20-foot-long um little bugger! The names might not ring a bell but you’ve seen these three stooges before--all on TV in fact. Purcell is currently enjoying about half the 15 minutes of fame of Wentworth Miller on Fox’s slipping Prison Break. Purcell plays Tim with steel and virility as he hides his Aussie accent for the most part but he’s still got a ways to go to reach Clive Owen’s caliber of acting--and more importantly Owen’s caliber of roles. Langton of The Net (the TV show adapted from the Sandra Bullock movie of the same name) and Melrose Place fame shows off the beauty that will afford endless opportunities to prove herself as a “real” actress—which is ironically similar to her character’s plight—but will never get there with roles in movies like Primeval. And Jones still best known for and plagued by his 7-Up commercials is in true negligible-sidekick mode here--worthy of a snicker approximately once out of every dozen times he tries overzealously to get one. Jaws may come to mind based on the water creature-stalking-man plot but well it’s tough to even mention those two in the same sentence. Director Michael Katleman a TV fixture himself at least doesn’t even aim high enough to reach that level. No from the get-go he’s shooting more for an Anacondas feel—and yes that’s the horrific sequel to the so-terrible-it’s-fun J.Lo “original.” Katleman almost reaches Anacondas-ian highs but not quite. Among other notable problems the director cannot for one moment strike the right balance between the aforementioned level of guilty pleasure-dom and genuine horror. Instead he catches us off guard with what are supposed to be the thrills—and also with the comedy. Finally once Gustave is revealed which should essentially be the moviegoers’ reward the croc looks more a prop sitting in a theme-park lot. And the script from John D. Brancato and Michael Ferris (Terminator 3 co-writers)—well let’s just hope with the story being uber-derivative and cheesy enough as it is Orlando Jones ad-libbed all of his unlaughable comedy!
Ana (Sarah Polley) a hard-working nurse living in a picturesque Wisconsin suburb wakes up early one morning to find a little blonde neighborhood girl chomping on Ana's husband's jugular. She makes a quick getaway only to find her pruned-lawn universe in complete disarray: Houses are on fire cars are careening out of control and people are literally running for their lives--and that's before the title art even appears. It turns out a mysterious plague is transforming people into zombies with an insatiable appetite for living human tissue. Now on the run Ana joins up with other survivors including tough cop Kenneth (Ving Rhames) good guy Michael (Jake Weber) street-smart Andre (Mekhi Phifer) and his very pregnant wife Luda (Inna Korobkina) and decide the Crossroads Mall would be a good sanctuary. After convincing three security guards to let them into their safe haven the group bands together to defend the mall against the growing army of zombies pawing at the glass doors. But while the mall with its stores packed with food clothing TVs and radios serves as an ideal refuge the group realizes that no one is coming to rescue them and their only chance of survival is to plot their own escape. But their getaway is squelched when some of those still living barricaded inside the mall begin to show signs of infection including the expectant Luda.
Drawing a skilled cast to a horror film--a genre that's not taken very seriously--is always a good move because it gives it a certain credibility. Dawn of the Dead's lineup which includes Polley Rhames Weber and Phifer offer up likeable characters despite the lack of character development. As the bleeding-heart nurse Polley (My Life Without Me) is clearly the heroine here: Not only does she care for everyone's medical needs but she is also the film's biggest risk taker diving nose-first into dangerous situations for the group's sake. Her character Ana is a nice balance to Rhames' badass cop Kenneth whose decisions are grounded and never clouded by emotion. Other dueling characters include Weber's (Wendigo) Michael the group's strategic leader and militant security guard CJ played by Michael Kelly (Unbreakable). The cast plays off each other nicely; it's just a shame that they are emotionally disconnected. For example although Phifer is persuasive as the doting father-to-be it's difficult to sympathize with Andre's gut wrenching predicament with his pregnant zombie wife because their bond was never established. Look for actors from the original film in cameo appearances including makeup artist Tom Savini (also a biker in the original) as the sheriff; Scott Reiniger (Roger) as the general; and Ken Foree (Peter) as the televangelist.
Dawn of the Dead marks Zack Snyder's directorial debut--and what a project he chose. Snyder however fittingly resurrects the undead created by Romero 24 years ago into much more menacing zombies for modern-day horror-savvy audiences: They are lightning-fast have shark-like radar for human flesh and demonstrate pack mentality. Of course the film's look is a lot slicker that its predecessor minus a few action sequences involving the zombie hordes that almost appear to have been shot on digital video. Snyder for example was careful not to make the film too CGI-laden and instead relied on special effects makeup designer David Anderson (Men in Black Nutty Professor II: The Klumps) to make the zombies extremely gross lifelike and menacing. But in focusing on creating this fear-provoking look the film loses some of the subtle humor that distinguished the 1978 production from the average horror pic. Remember the scene in the original film that has the zombies robotically trying to walk up the down escalator? Romero had a way of laughing at the film's own absurdity without demeaning it; Snyder's humor here is less sophisticated and instead relies on screenwriter James Gunn's dialogue. But this modern Dawn of the Dead is still a thrilling moviegoing experience with tons of scares to be had.