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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Of course 21 isn’t just about blackjack. It’s more about Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess) a shy but brilliant M.I.T. student who--needing to pay Harvard medical school tuition--finds the answers in the cards so to speak. After dazzling his unorthodox math professor and stats genius Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey) with some mathematical prowess Ben is quickly indoctrinated into Rosa’s group of “gifted” students who head to Las Vegas every weekend with the know-how to count cards and beat the casino at the blackjack tables. And win big they do. Ben is soon seduced by the allure of this luxurious lifestyle including his sexy teammate Jill (Kate Bosworth) but begins rebelling against the well-oiled machine Rosa has built. Apparently you don’t want to cross this particular math professor--nor the old-school casino security consultant (Laurence Fishburne) who has set his sights on Ben as a master card counter. It’s not illegal to do that but the casinos don’t much like it when they catch you doing it. Hey what happens in Vegas…oh you know the rest. The most well-rounded performance comes from the British Sturgess best known for singing Beatles’ songs in Across the Universe. His Ben starts out as a naive math whiz/nerd whose biggest thrill is designing the perfect science project for an M.I.T. contest but then becomes the smooth Vegas dude with the nice clothes and hot girlfriend and finally turns into the guy who eventually loses it all. It’s not hard to see just how much Ben is going to change once he gets involved in the moneymaking scheme but Sturgess handles the transition with aplomb. The stiff Bosworth isn’t nearly as effective as his love interest but she has her moments. Also good for comic relief is Aaron Yoo (Disturbia) as one of the blackjack players who oddly enough is also a kleptomaniac. The performance drawbacks in 21 come from the more veteran players. Spacey and Fishburne seem to be going through the motions utilizing techniques they’ve used many times before. Spacey can whither whoever it is with that look of his while Fishburne postures as he always does. It’s too bad they couldn’t have put in more effort. As with any movie in which the action is inherently stagnant (i.e. sitting at a blackjack table) the question is how to keep things visually stimulating. That’s where director Robert Luketic--who up to this point has only done broad comedies such as Legally Blonde and Win a Date with Tad Hamilton--comes in. Luketic does a fine job maneuvering the camera around the tables creating slo-mo close-ups of the cards and incorporating a cool soundtrack. A good montage or four usually can also work well in a situation like this and Luketic fully utilizes that technique--from the kids winning to them spending their money in gloriously obscene ways. Based on the book Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of Six M.I.T. Students Who Took Vegas for Millions 21 has the extra advantage of being a somewhat true story as well. But the script from Peter Steinfeld and Allan Loeb basically copies from other sources and never really distinguishes itself.
Sailing to the end of the world escaping Davy Jones’ Locker betraying your fellow shipmates forming alliances and/or crossing swords with either dead crustaceans or British government baddies is just another day in the life of these pirates whose convoluted interactions with one another rival any soap opera. The players have all returned: Elizabeth Swan (Keira Knightley) now a expert pirate herself; steadfast Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) estranged from his love Elizabeth and on a mission to save his father Bootstrap (Stellan Skarsgard); Capt. Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) risen from the dead to lead the Black Pearl; Lord Beckett (Tom Hollander) the evil head of the East India Trading Company who has control of the Flying Dutchman as well as the inky Davy Jones (Bill Nighy); Tia Dalma (Naomie Harris) the mystic who may be a little more powerful than we think. And a few new faces too namely Capt. Sao Feng (Chow Yun-Fat) a cunning Chinese pirate. And then there’s Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) who since being rescued by his mates from the depths of hell has some great dead man’s tales to tell—as well as a few debts to pay. As the Pirates of the Caribbean get ready for their final titanic battle all their lives and fortunes--and the entire future of the freedom-loving pirate way—hang in the balance. Everyone does a nice job further developing their characters in this third installment. As the young lovers Knightley’s Elizabeth has gone from being a pampered—albeit feisty—lass to a full-fledged ass-kicking pirate (even if she has clean teeth) while Bloom’s Will once green at the whole hero thing turns into a true leader. Rush as the new and improved Barbossa isn’t nearly as menacing in human form as he was undead but his sparring with Captain Jack over who’s the rightful captain of the Black Pearl makes for some hilarious scenes. Nighy even gets to display a somewhat softer side to Davy Jones as we learn more about the octopus head’s backstory. Hollander (Pride & Prejudice) appropriately oozes villainy while Chow makes a nice addition as the grizzled Chinese pirate lord. Last but not least is Mr. Depp. Thankfully his Jack Sparrow isn’t as cartoonish as he was in Dead Man's Chest. In fact watching him interact with a whole pirate ship full of Jack Sparrow clones is quite something. But with a mixture of pirate swagger sexuality and effeminate mannerisms Jack never really changes—and that’s fine by us. And yes Keith Richards makes a well-placed cameo. That guy was born to play a pirate. Two hours and 45 minutes folks—that’s what you’re in for with At World's End. Even if you are a pirate fan that’s a lot of time yo-ho-ho-ing out at sea. Maybe director Gore Verbinski wanted to make four POTC movies but instead he’s forced to tie up all the loose ends—of which there seems to be an endless supply—in the third installment. At one point just to further things along Verbinski stages a long scene of exposition backstabbing and deal making by cutting between characters pacing around on their respective ships. We get it. Everyone has an agenda and no one can be trusted. To its credit however At World's End still manages to keep your attention with its amazing visuals. The production value and special effects on this trilogy rivals another famous trilogy involving a place called Middle Earth. In At World's End we have: the crowded waterways of Singapore and opulent den of Sao Feng; Shipwreck Cove where an important pirate summit is held; watching how the Black Pearl makes its way from a dry flat sea bed to the ocean AND the way to get from Davy Jones’ Locker back to the world of the living; and of course the final climactic battle at sea. The movie’s long but definitely worth its weight in gold doubloons giving just a whiff of possibility to a fourth one.