Oh, Hollywood, you scamp. If this is what you thought we wanted for Valentine’s Day, you were so wrong. You were Forgetful Husband With Gas Station Chocolates wrong. You were Idiot Boyfriend With Heart-Emblazoned Slanket wrong. You messed up and, I hate to be the one to tell you this, you’re sleeping on the couch. Because in trying to be everything to everyone, the terrible mess that is This Means War is neither action packed enough for the bros, romantic enough for the ladies or funny enough for anyone with two brain cells to rub together. If the movie itself and the slick, bombastic ad campaign accompanying it looks familiar to you, that’s because the screenwriter, Simon Kinberg, also penned that movie where Angie met Brad. But Mr. and Mrs. Smith (a not great but completely fun movie) benefited not only from the real life sizzle and pop of its leads, but also the nuanced direction from Doug Liman, who is a master at blending emotional subtext with action. This Means War, on the other hand, was directed by McG who has, throughout his short and completely unvaried career, shown a penchant for guns, half naked babes and plot holes you could drive a flaming semi through.
The story is quite simple. Spy meets girl, other spy meets girl, spies nearly kill each other and exploit government equipment and funds in order to win girl, girl falls helplessly in love despite being lied to, by everyone, for the entirety of the film. Tale as old as time. In traditional spy fashion, the two male leads, Chris Pine and Tom Hardy, walk away from this quagmire with barely a scratch on their CVs. Both acquit themselves quite well with both the action and the comedy. And if the screenwriter’s idea of romance is breaking into a woman’s apartment in order to plant invasive surveillance equipment well, that’s hardly the actor’s fault. The same, however, cannot be said for Reese Witherspoon. Witherspoon is quite the talented performer but has never, despite the Oscar win, been a very convincing actress. While she is a genius at playing cuddly with an edge (the deceptively brainy and determined Elle Woods, the vicious cutie pie Tracy Flick, the brash June Carter Cash and even, oh yes, Sweet Home Alabama’s Felony Melanie), she is not chameleonic enough to pull off either serious actressin’ or fluffy passive love interest. She’s in Full Perky Blonde With Increasingly Short Skirts mode here as Lauren, the object of such violent and relentless affection. Because we never really get to know her well, we’re not sure what the boys want from her other than to “penetrate her perimeter.” (That’s an actual line of dialogue from this movie. You’re welcome.)
But because this is a spy flick, there is, of course, a dumb-as-rocks action side plot that spills over into the romance story. The talented Til Schweiger is utterly wasted as the predictably named Heinrich. Has there ever in the history of film been a non-villainous Heinrich? The abrasive Chelsea Handler also pops up as Trish, Lauren’s confidante. Though the Sassy Best Friend role is a romcom must, Handler’s particular brand of crass humor clashes with the sweetness of all three leads. Why would Witherspoon’s character ever be friends with her? All the spare chuckles and weak titters that can be wrung out of this film come from the banter between Pine and Hardy. But McG, who never met a freeway he didn’t want to blow up, doesn’t allow for much character development in any arena. His overblown style and creepy voyeuristic depiction of women almost worked in Charlie’s Angels because you felt like the girls were somehow in on the joke. Here, with Witherspoon the unwitting, easily duped pawn in cinema’s most explosive pissing contest, McG’s fondness for greasy thigh shots comes off as, well, greasy.
Truth be told, this would be a much better story without Witherspoon. If you’re looking for chemistry in this film, look no further than rapid patter and tender affection between Hardy and Pine. I assure you, their pillow lips and well-filled formal wear would have been enough to draw the ladies into the theater. Because that’s what this mish-mash of genres is all about, right? Drawing in both the men and the women? Well word to the wise, Hollywood, it doesn’t work if your film is sh*t. And this film is much more Knight And Day and Killers than it is True Lies or Mr. And Mrs. Smith. I’m tired as h*ll of seeing some daffy blonde strapped to the back of a motorcycle or adorably misfiring a gun. The spy genre can be sexy fun, but only if everyone is allowed to play.