(2012)3.5Jason BuchananDon't be fooled by the classy, minimalist grey This Means War posters adorning your local multiplex, because this colorful, footloose bromantic action comedy from popcorn-flick auteur McG isn't just a fun return to form after the abysmal Terminator Salvation, but also proof positive that the oft-derided director has a genuine flair for comedy. And while gonzo-action lovers may be somewhat disappointed by the lack of cartoonish excess on display here, there's still more than enough comic chemistry and secret-agent shenanigans to keep us involved while the guns are holstered.
FDR (Chris Pine) and Tuck (Tom Hardy) aren't just two of the top agents in the CIA; they also happen to be the very best of friends. More brotherly than most siblings, FDR and Tuck share virtually everything in their lives, including family. But after years of chasing bad guys across the globe and sweeping international beauties into their beds, both are starting to feel like they might be missing out on the benefits of true romance. And they're not the only ones: Career-driven Lauren (Reese Witherspoon) has a good job testing consumer products, but a recent breakup has left her depressed and lonely. Though things start to look up after Lauren meets Tuck on a popular dating website, the romance gets tangled when FDR by chance falls for her as well. Later, when the two pals realize they've been wooing the same woman, they strike a gentleman's agreement that they will both keep dating Lauren and allow her to pick the best man. Meanwhile, as the two secret agents use every tool at their disposal to gain an upper hand in the competition, their former target Heinrich (Til Schweiger) plots revenge for a botched raid that killed his brother months prior.
If snark were of finite supply, its stock may be in dangerous threat of depletion due solely to the scorn so frequently directed at fluff Renaissance man McG by "serious" critics and film fans. To be fair, it's hard to blame them; a poster boy for glossy, mindless entertainment thanks to his involvement with the CW television network (Nikita, Supernatural) and his penchant for selecting style-over-substance movies, McG could be considered the modern, undisputed master of switch-your-brain-off-at-the-door entertainment (though some might argue he'd have stiff competition from Michael Bay). And though the 2006 sports drama We Are Marshall hinted at a newfound maturity some may not have seen coming, 2009's Terminator Salvation took sci-fi melodrama to excruciating new lows, perhaps doing irreparable damage to the series that once seemed as unstoppable as its time-traveling android. If you're one of those moviegoers who seem genetically predisposed to hating McG, This Means War may not be enough to make you do a complete about-face, though it might give you pause when citing him as an archetypal example of everything that's wrong with Hollywood.
Opening with a fast-paced action setup in Hong Kong, the film at first gives the impression that it might simply be a Charlie's Angels retread with a pair of James Bond wannabes. But as soon as the action moves back stateside, where FDR and Tuck are grounded by their superiors for making a spectacle of a top-secret mission, something unexpected happens -- the over-the-top action suddenly takes a major backseat to character development and mischievous comedy. Not only that, but the brotherly chemistry between the two protagonists is nearly equal to the romantic chemistry they each share with their leading lady, ensuring that restless viewers will stick with the comedy once the bullets stop flying. Yet it isn't until FDR and Tuck begin abusing their power in a frantic bid to impress the lovely Lauren that This Means War really hits its comic stride. Gradually upping the ante as they bug her apartment, employ satellite-surveillance technology, dispatch drones, and have their underlings compile full reports on each date, the director and screenwriters Timothy Dowling and Simon Kinberg keep the laughs coming at a genuinely satisfying pace as the smitten spies grow increasingly adversarial. Likewise, with a great comic set piece at a paintball contest (shot like a "real" action sequence), an impressive (apparently) single-take sequence in which FDR and Tuck both sneak around Lauren's apartment undetected by her or each other, and a memorable trip to a private art collection, McG and company fill This Means War with a variety of lighthearted comic sequences that playfully poke fun at the conventions of both action films and romantic comedies.
By the time the action element of the plot comes full circle near the end, we've been having so much fun that we've forgotten about it entirely -- not because it's been neglected in the script, but rather because the main plot works so well we're consistently engaged. Though it's good to know intellectually ambitious filmmakers will always be there to challenge and provoke us, it's also reassuring that McG still takes the high art of Hollywood gloss seriously.