The title of this romantic action comedy is obviously drawn from the old Looney Tunes shorts with Bugs Bunny. Whenever the wascally wabbit was wronged by somebody—animal or human—he’d announce, “Of course, you know this means war,” and the battle of wits was on, with Bugs always winning. The audience won, too. But there are a couple of big differences between the Looney Tunes and “This Means War,” about a couple of CIA operatives who fight over a pretty woman. One is length, of course: the cartoons were five minutes and the movie is ninety, and it’s hard to sustain the joke for an hour and a half. The other is that the Warner Brothers shorts were funny, and McG’s picture isn’t.
The movie opens with James Bondish partners Franklin (Chris Pine, smiling a lot) and Tuck (Tom Hardy, not even bothering to ditch his British accent and attempt an American one) breaking up a big score by international villain Heinrich (Til Schweiger)—a splashy rooftop caper in which the baddie’s brother dies in a fall to the pavement. The duo represent the very personification of jokey macho camaraderie, until they both decide, during a desk-duty penalty imposed by their boss (Angela Bassett)—that they need some female companionship. Tuck, who’s separated from his wife (Abigail Leigh Spencer), uses a dating service to set up a date with Lauren (Reese Witherspoon), a hard-driving consumer product analyst whose saucy pal Trish (Chelsea Handler) created an on-line resume for her. Unfortunately, womanizer Franklin—or FDR, as he’s called—coincidentally bumps into Lauren in an improbably huge video store and decides to pursue her. When the guys discover they’re both interested in the same woman, they agree to a “may the best man win” arrangement, but almost immediately shred it, using the agency’s surveillance tools to discover Lauren’s likes and dislikes and to sabotage each other’s dates with her.
The romantic triangle scenario is an old standard, but the addition of the CIA angle adds a sour taste to the mix. A romcom about stalking is a hard sell under any circumstances, needing a lot more wit than the juvenile jokes of this script, but one that employs the government’s anti-terrorist apparatus to spy on the object of one’s affection requires a sharp satirical edge that’s totally lacking here. (A throwaway reference to the Patriot Act is as close as the writers get to remarking on the patent illegality of what’s going on.)
But even setting aside all those admittedly highfalutin concerns, “This Means War” isn’t a terribly clever take on the “Spy Vs. Spy” formula. Setting off sprinklers to douse a hot date? Shooting your rival with a knock-out dart? Are these the best bits the scripters could come up with? Even worse is the dialogue provided to Handler’s horny, motor-mouthed Trish, who comes across like the raunchy supporting player in a really bad network sitcom. Efforts to “humanize” the two agents—by providing Franklin with a loving grandma (Rosemary Harris) who raised him after his parents’ death, and Tuck with a young son he accompanies to karate class (leading, of course, to a big turnaround in the kid’s skill from an opening scene to a concluding one)—fails miserably. And the damsels-in-distress finale in which Heinrich makes his inevitable reappearance, like the rooftop prologue, boasts the splashily colorful action McG specializes in but comes off oddly unexciting.
None of the cast is at their best. Pine and Hardy merely strut and pose, and Witherspoon falls back on the ball-breaking professional woman shtick we’ve seen her do before. Harris provides an oasis of calm amid the mayhem, but Bassett overdoes the hardnosed boss business, and Handler would be way over-the-top even on the smallest of screens. Schweiger simply smolders, perhaps nonplussed at being so totally wasted.
“This Means War” has a bright, slick look courtesy of Russell Carpenter’s cinematography and a savvy behind-the-scenes crew headed by production designer Martin Lang, but it’s one all too reminiscent of the cartoons that were its models. And that merely reinforces how inferior to them it is. Pine and Tuck may be easier on the eye, but give me Bugs and Yosemite Sam any day.