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.
Follow Thomas Leupp on Twitter.
Follow Hollywood.com on Twitter.
“Story” is a pejorative term when applied to The Comebacks. The entire concept of the film is basically an excuse to string together and spoof famous scenes from a variety of sports movies including Field of Dreams Bend It Like Beckham Seabiscuit Remember the Titans Rudy Invincible Stick It Drumline et al. David Koechner stars as Lambeau Fields the worst coach in the history of sports who takes one more stab at gridiron glory when he agrees to coach Heartland State University’s luckless football squad. Needless to say this assemblage of losers misfits and malcontents is turned into a winning team under Coach’s somewhat unorthodox tutelage. Unlike most coaches Fields encourages his players to cut class take drugs drink to excess and behave as badly as he does. It all culminates in the championship game (“The Toilet Bowl”) between Coach Fields’ Comebacks and the mighty Invincibles coached by Fields’ one-time friend-turned-rival Freddie Wiseman (Carl Weathers). Despite being down 35-0 at halftime the Comebacks...well you can guess the rest. The collective enthusiasm of the cast goes a long way toward keeping The Comebacks watchable. Koechner enjoying his first big-screen lead has a likable lunk-headed quality that makes Coach Fields an endearing idiot. Melora Hardin scores too as his neglected wife and Brooke Nevin is a looker as their rebellious teenage daughter who also happens to be a gymnastics wiz (Stick It anyone?). Weathers a one-time pro-football player before stardom (in Rocky beckoned) has a good time playing the duplicitous Coach Wiseman and some of the more memorable members of the Comebacks include Matthew Lawrence Jackie Long Noureen DeWulf and Robert Ri’chard. A lot of familiar faces turn up in cameo roles: Will Arnett Dax Shepard Jonathan Gries Kerri Kenney Jillian Grace Eric Christian Olsen Stacy Kiebler Frank Caliendo (doing his impressions of John Madden and Al Michaels) and Andy Dick whose role as the referee during the climactic football game isn’t big enough for him to be as truly annoying as he can be. (That’s a good thing.) Not surprisingly a number of real-life sports personalities turn up in cameos as well: Dennis Rodman (as a prison warden no less!) Michael Irvin Eric Dickerson Lawrence Taylor John Salley Chris Rose and Bill Buckner (reprising his infamous error from the 1986 World Series). Director Tom Brady not to be mistaken for the New England Patriots quarterback previously directed the 2002 Rob Schneider vehicle The Hot Chick. This is unquestionably an improvement. The Comebacks may be dumb--intentionally so--but it’s never dull. There are a good number of groans along with laughs but the film never really runs out of steam. The football scenes are surprisingly well-rendered and are realistic enough that they could easily have come from a straightforward football movie--without the punch lines of course. There’s a pretty even ratio between the gags that work and the ones that don’t and the film’s formula seems to be: When all else fails hit below the belt with repeated crotch jokes. Those looking for a sophisticated highbrow comedy should look elsewhere.