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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While studying film and media in college, I enrolled in a course called "New York in Film and Television." The curriculum focused on works of entertainment that are either set in or are about the Big Apple, and in most cases the movies we screened applied to both. We viewed films as wide ranging as MGM's classic musical On The Town and the Oscar winning staple West Wide Story as well as gangster pics like Robert De Niro's A Bronx Tale and crime thrillers like The French Connection, all of which depict The City That Never Sleeps in contrasting fashion.
There wasn't much required reading, but the one book that my professor assigned was called Street Smart and it described and analyzed the characteristics of the "New York" of the four major filmmakers most closely associated with the city: Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee, Woody Allen and the late, great Sidney Lumet. Each of these auteurs offered their own eclectic taste of New York City to their audiences, from the raw and racially-charged Brooklyn as seen in Lee's Do The Right Thing and Crooklyn to Allen's quirky and charming Manhattan from films like Annie Hall and...Manhattan. Off all of these directors, the one I was least familiar with was Lumet; ironic since he had been around way before the others had made their mark on the movie industry. As I dug deeper into his filmography, I realized that his films may have most realistically depicted the New York that I knew and the residents which I interacted with on a daily basis.
That makes Lumet an important figure in the history of cinema (as do his five Oscar nominations) and his passing, which occurred on Saturday afternoon, is a major loss for Hollywood and movie buffs alike. Since you, too, may not know just how incredible his work is, I present seven essential Lumet films that you ought to view this week in honor of one of Hollywood's true renegades.
12 Angry Men (1957)
Pre-dating the American Civil Right Movement by a few years, this unprecedented courtroom drama opened a national discussion about the state of society and the legal system in the USA. 12 Angry Men is about a jury charged with the seemingly simple task of finding a young Hispanic man guilty of murder; simple because there's an orgy of evidence validating that conclusion, but things only appear to be so cut and dry. Thanks to a sole juror (played by the great Henry Fonda), the case is deliberated for hours inside a stifling environment where the tension and temperature run high. Lumet brilliantly exposes the prejudices of the all white jury members while simultaneously developing each character, which makes the explosive climax that much more riveting. A timeless tale of tolerance, the movie will be shown in film school's for years to come as its message is as topical today as it was in '57 and the execution is a work of genius.
Films about police corruption are a dime-a-dozen these days, but it wasn't always that way. Cops were classically portrayed as stoic and righteous up until the 1970s, when a new class of filmmakers began to uncover the greed and immorality of public office through their art. In between shooting The Godfather and its sequel, Al Pacino teamed with the already established Lumet (he had made some 17 films in between 12 Angry Men and this) to tell the true-story of Frank Serpico, an undercover NYPD officer who attempted to expose the truth about the criminal activities that his colleagues were taking part in only to be almost-literally stabbed in the back by these crooked cops. Together, Lumet and Pacino created a conflicted character that struggled with the ramifications of his noble actions, but Lumet must solely be credited with helping create a sub-genre of thrillers that is incredibly prevalent and successful in 21st century cinema, from 16 Blocks to Pride and Glory to The Departed.
Murder On The Orient Express (1974)
Lumet directed Ingrid Bergman to her 3rd and final Academy Award in this taut thriller about an English detective investigating a murder aboard a transcontinental train. He assembled a magnificent cast, including Albert Finney, Bergman, Sean Connery, Vanessa Redgrave, Michael York and Lauren Bacall to weave a web of intrigue that connects to the case at hand in almost unfathomable ways. The motion picture can almost be compared to a TV procedural, though its open-ended and slightly unsatisfying conclusion is far from a broadcast standard. Technical beauty aside, Lumet's greatest achievement in this film was, perhaps, resisting the Hollywood ending.
Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
Once again teaming up with Al Pacino, Lumet took on another true story set in New York following his detour on the Orient Express. This unlikely crime story tells of Sonny and Sal, two dead-beats who turn to bank robbing when all other options in their lives seem to be exhausted. Unfortunately, this bumbling duo arrived too late as the majority of the bank's cash had been picked up for the day, but that doesn't stop New York's finest from acting accordingly. What follows is a tense 24 hour stand-off that doesn't end well for either of them. Lumet makes all the lost souls of the big city seem sympathetic to the audience, especially Sonny and Sal, which was no small feat considering this was a real situation that real people were put into. At its heart, Dog Day Afternoon is a message movie about the consequences of one's actions, but there's so much social subtext within it actually gets more personal each time you watch it.
A near-perfect dramatization of the lengths that a major media conglomerate will go to turn profit, Network is a boldly executed cautionary tale about the power of the gatekeepers of information in today's society. Marked by shocking performances from Peter Finch, Faye Dunaway, Beatrice Straight and William Holden, the film is perhaps more relevant today than it was in '76, when the ratings race was really heating up at the various TV networks of the USA. The satire is as funny as it is frightening in retrospect and the film gave pop-culture one of its most recognizable quotes: "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore!" This is required viewing for any and all who plan on making a career in television and media and also one of the greatest films of all time.
The Verdict (1982)
Just as he took on police corruption in earlier works, Lumet challenged the legal world in The Verdict. Paul Newman plays a down-on-his-luck lawyer who takes (what should be) an easy case, but is inspired to exact true justice on the institutions that left a young woman paralyzed in a vegetative state. The film is many things; a character piece, a David and Goliath good-versus-evil tale and an expose of the medical malpractice field, but Lumet transcends the tropes of them all by making a movie that entertains while infuriating its audience thanks to its authentic portrayal of lawyers and the lengths they'll go to uncover or hide the truth.
Before The Devil Knows You're Dead (2007)
Lumet had explored complex families in past productions (Family Business, Running On Empty, Night Falls On Manhattan), but none is quite as emotionally disturbing as his final film, which hit theaters fifty years after his first. Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke play brothers who attempt to rob their family's jewelry store to help pay for debts and child-support, respectively, but things go horribly wrong and their mother ends up dead, which sends them on a downward spiral of guilt, shame and violence. It's a pulpy, tragic and harrowing tale that's well acted and executed by the director; very much a return to form for Lumet, whose last few films leading up to it failed to achieve the same level of prestige as his earlier works.