It’s spy versus spy in this caper film that somehow manages to successfully combine the rom-com with the action genre and get away with both.
Joseph McGinty Nichol, better known to the world as McG, could have quite easily disappeared off the map after the woeful Terminator: Salvation. Yet with fond memories of his first Charlie’s Angels still floating about, and his producer duties on TV’s successful Chuck, his caché in Hollywood is clearly sufficient enough to helm a big blockbuster Valentine’s Day date movie aimed squarely at couples who can never agree on whether to see the rom-com or the action flick.
Elite loose-canon CIA agents FDR (Chris Pine) and Tuck (Tom Hardy) are trying to stop the forces of evil, embodied in Heinrich (Til Schweiger), but neither of them sees consumer product tester Lauren (Reese Witherspoon) coming. Desperate to introduce a man into her life, her friend and confidant Trish (Chelsea Handler) puts her details onto an online dating site, where she grabs the attention of Tuck. After a meaningful date, the pair connect, but a chance encounter with player FDR leaves her indecisive. So she resolves to date them both, which is all good until they discover they are dating the same woman.
The storyline is the kind of high-concept simplicity that won’t win any screenwriting awards, but it is also the sort of movie at which McG has found a home. Normally anything from the singularly named director is something to be wary of. The Charlie’s Angels sequel was an unmitigated mess, and while We Are Marshall grabbed some acclaim, Terminator: Salvation undid any kudos he earned. So rather than try and win back any credibility as a “serious” filmmaker, McG’s This Means War is a throwback to the fun of the 1980s and 1990s, somewhere between True Lies and his own Charlie’s Angels. Even the terrorist is German, making this more of the Die Hard era than the cut and paste, post-9/11 Middle Eastern terrorists of today. This frenetic pacing mixed with romance is not really a shock when one of the co-writers is Simon Kinberg (Sherlock Holmes, Mr. & Mrs. Smith) and the other is Timothy Dowling (Just Go With It).
Yet the action takes a back-seat to the interplay between the three leads, who have been cleverly selected to cast a wide net in the audience demographics. Rather than trying to be all things to all people, the film relies on the natural appeal of each of the trio. Witherspoon is the rom-com veteran, and anchors the laughs. She may simply be the object of desire, and her character is not as well-rounded as her other recent roles, but she makes it her own. Similarly, with Pine we have Captain Kirk, and a filmography that has worked with everyone from Joe Carnahan to…Tony Scott!
Hardy is the wildcard, having built a solid reputation through Inception, Tinker Tailor Solider Spy and Warrior, and soon to hit superstardom in The Dark Knight Rises. While he may have been simply taking the cheques in this outing, safe in the knowledge that his next half-a-dozen jobs are already lined up, he slides easily into the role, proving himself as one of the most versatile actors in and outside of Hollywood at the moment. A sequence in which he pummels children in a paintball fight is as awesome as it sounds.
All of them are overshadowed by the unexpectedly hilarious Chelsea Handler, the talk-show host who is known for her frank and often insulting conversational tone. While she is irritating in the extended format of her own show, here she parlays her persona into the kind of rough-around-the-edges Greek chorus that is needed to take the edge of the more ridiculous moments in the film. Indeed, she would be well served to give up the night life and focus on the acting full time.
This Means War falls short of being a perfect rom-com or a classic action film, but the combination of the two are an easy fit when the cast is this good. Over-the-top action and romance don’t seem like the perfect night out, but there is plenty here to at least call a draw in the battle of the sexes at the box office.
This Means War is released in Australia on 14 February 2011 in Australia.