Though Reese Witherspoon is America’s cinematic sweetheart, a comedy where two guys fight for her affections may not sound plausible to some. Make both those guys secret agents and it sounds even crazier. But This Means War actually works. Well, for the most part. The action/comedy from Charlie’s Angels director McG is more charming than it looks and surprising light on action. That’s a welcome change of pace since usually in these types of hybrid films violence is misused to punctuate humor rather than tell a story. Much of the action in the film is designed to provide insight into the lives of the two secret agents played by Chris Pine and Tom Hardy, but their pursuit of Witherspoon and the comedic lengths they will go through to win her are where the two actors really shine.
Pine and Hardy are FDR., an airline captain and Tuck, a travel agent. Except those occupations are just their cover. They’re actually spies, working for the CIA, and their latest assignment is the capture of international criminal Heinrich (Til Schweiger). The film opens in an engaging action sequence where FDR does what he does best, saving Tuck’s ass, with Heinrich’s brother getting killed in the process. With their target now in the wind, FDR and Tuck are handed desk duty by their superior Agent Collins (Angela Bassett) and their exciting lifestyle is brought to an abrupt end.
Being a spy no doubt will make any man a chick magnet, but of the pair, FDR has fared better in the romance department. Tuck still pines for his estranged wife Katie (Abigail Spencer) with whom he shares a young son, yet despite his attempts to reconnect she admittedly finds him boring. Maybe the fact that he neglected to tell her he’s really a spy instead of a travel agent didn’t help.
Through a dating service, Tuck meets Lauren (Witherspoon), a neurotic kitchen product-testing expert who has been just as unlucky in love. She keeps running into her ex who likes to gloat around his new girlfriend and if it wasn’t for the urging of her best friend Trish (Chelsea Handler) she would probably give up looking for Mr. Right. Tuck and Lauren actually hit off in their initial meeting, but after agreeing to a real first date she crosses paths with FDR who becomes intrigued after she sees through his charm and one-liners. Realizing they’re interested in the same woman, FDR attempts to respectfully back off, but it’s the manner in which he does so that pisses Tuck off. With both of their egos now in question, they agree to date Lauren at the same time with the simple rule that they don’t let it come between their friendship. Good luck with that.
As FDR and Tuck begin to use their covert skills and CIA resources to woo Lauren, their pursuit of Heinrich takes a backseat to their comedic antics. In truth, I didn’t mind, because the lengths both spies will go to win this girl are the most entertaining aspects of the picture. Initially passing off surveillance of Lauren as an off-the-books investigation concerning Heinrich, FDR and Tuck eventually establish individual teams of techie nerds in their respective corners rooting for each of them. In one sequence, a Steadicam follows Lauren she prepares dinner to the sounds of Montell Jordan’s “This Is How We Do It”, unaware that both Tuck and FDR are each planting their own set of listening devices as she dances throughout her home. It’s a cute and well choreographed scene with the three leads that’s more entertaining than any action sequence.
The best spy equipment in the world can’t get inside of a woman’s head and even after the two romantic rivals decide to share their intel and combine their resources, they still can’t figure out what Lauren’s thinking. When Lauren confesses to Trish that she feels Tuck is a little too sweet, he takes her out shooting, putting his skills as a spy in action. The gag is, the setting is a paintball course filled with hapless pre-teens and Tuck violently takes the offensive against them as if he were in a “Call of Duty” game. When FDR overhears that Lauren feels he isn’t as sensitive as Tuck, he sets up the lie that he volunteers at an animal shelter even though no one who works at the place has a clue who the hell he is.
No doubt FDR and Tuck’s pursuit of Lauren builds tension between the two rivals and though the comedic bits take a brief pause to get back to their pursuit of Heinrich (who is reported to be on his way to the US looking for revenge), as spies they soon fall off their A-game. Pine and Hardy work so well together that even though FDR and Tuck slowly become enemies, you get the sense that deep down they still care for one another. As soon as the two characters engage in a shoot-out with the bad guys, they work in sync and despite their new rivalry, one would probably still take a bullet for the other. If I had a character to root for it would be Hardy’s unlucky in love Tuck, since he found Lauren first and FDR is nothing but an alpha male ready to get in a d!#k measuring contest.
Witherspoon is unfortunately one of the weakest elements of the picture. It’s understandable that her character has personal doubts and need the encouragement of Handler – whose schtick here is better than her late night talk show – but they could have made her character a bit stronger. The most she shows is some sass which is what appeals to FDR in the first place and why he decides to woo her.
Occasionally, This Means War makes the mistake of insulting your intelligence. Whether this was intentional or not is anyone’s guess, but do they really expect us to believe that Lauren and FDR would meet in the aisle of a video rental store? Those establishments barely exist anymore and yet this one appears to be stocked with titles from the same studio that’s releasing this film. Not only is that an old gag, but it was old five to ten years ago. Hardy can be quite funny as the self-absorbed FDR, but why does his apartment look like it was furnished from a Sharper Image catalog? With a swimming pool in the ceiling no less.
The comedic pursuit of Witherspoon by the two leads is where the film works, with many of the shoot-outs and action sequences falling rather flat. McG hasn’t choreographed the action to be too outrageous, but I did get some Charlie’s Angels deja-vu on more than one occasion. Predictably, Lauren gets wind of what’s really going on, just in time for the threat of Heinrich to step back into the main story, but unfortunately, we’re cheated with no real third act. Witherspoon doesn’t phone in her performance, but her days as a lead in romantic comedies are numbered since she’s starting to look too old and tired for this genre. Pine and Hardy have an infectious energy here and as breakout stars on the cusp of mega-stardom, look to benefit the most.