It is good to see a movie that portrays the CIA’s best agents putting their talent and technology to good work—stalking a blonde bombshell and injuring children in a game of paintball. To be fair, in “This Means War,” FDR (Chris Pine) and Tuck (Tom Hardy) do a lot more. They also adopt and mistreat a dog, charter fancy sports cars, and acquire private access to trapeze sets—all for the purpose of impressing the aforementioned hot girl, Lauren Scott (Reese Witherspoon). Despite this flashy exterior, however, “This Means War” is a particularly generic, uninspiring romantic comedy with a disappointingly underdeveloped CIA subplot that fails to impress.
The two male lead characters are strangely amorphous. Firstly, no explanation is ever given as to why Pine’s character is named “FDR.” Furthermore, they seem more like sexually frustrated, spoiled teenagers than suave secret agents. After being explicitly told in the first scene of the movie that their mission is, in fact, covert, their subterfuge tactics seem to consist of flirting with anything that moves, feigning intoxication, punching bad guys, and haphazardly shooting things.
FDR has the classic good looks and philandering tendencies of a debonair, charismatic James Bond. His tactics, though, are thoroughly infantile—he introduces himself to a woman early on as a cruise ship captain who is in possession of a “large vessel” which she is welcome to go aboard while a nagging Tuck reminds him they have an arms-dealing pair of German brothers to go nab. Lauren, the woman with whom both Tuck and FDR become infatuated, is frustratingly shallow. She dresses like a Barbie, adores sports cars and dogs, sings to herself in public, and is terribly indecisive, but that is as deep as it goes.
Like so many romantic comedies, “This Means War” is overflowing with clichés and stock characters. The least forgivable is Lauren’s vulgar, moronic, and overpowering best friend Trish (Chelsea Handler). She encourages Scott to date two men at once on the basis of an obligation to all the women who have no choice but to sleep with the same man every night. As if Trish were not repulsive enough, the audience is forced to watch her roll around on the floor with her slimy boyfriend as they eat Cheetos out of each other’s mouths while she talks to Lauren on the phone. Then, of course, the stereotypically sassy black female boss (Angela Bassett), and the villains, who, true to form, consist of a German ringleader (Til Schweiger) with Russian minions doing business with the Chinese.
Mixing action spy thriller with romantic comedy could have given “This Means War” the means to escape from the annoyingly formulaic and trite. Quickly, though, any actual exciting CIA operations are entirely forgotten about, and the unimpressive spy gadgetry—which mostly consists of surveillance equipment, tranquilizer darts, and a great deal of expendable cash—becomes nothing more than toys for the men to use as they please as they compete for Lauren. A fully fleshed-out subplot, rather than just the occasional fight scene with the apparent bad guys, could have provided a welcome dose of excitement as well as a respite from the banality of the romantic plotline. Even short of that, where are the ejector seats, the jet packs, the dagger shoes, the X-ray glasses and explosive chewing gum? Such silly spy movie staples could at least have made Tuck and FDR’s CIA privileges a bit more worthwhile.
There were a few funny moments and one worthwhile acting performance on the part of Hardy as Tuck. The premise that each agent was able to watch and record every moment of Lauren’s life as well her interactions with his rival added a new dimension to the romantic comedy formula. And Hardy played a much more sympathetic and likable character that provided reprieve from the obnoxiousness of every other aspect of the movie. However, these brief moments could not redeem the film.
The movie takes its tagline right out of the MAD magazine comic strip “Spy vs. Spy,” but it lacks the ingenuity or political irreverence of the strip, which has been running for over 50 years. While the black and white spies in the comic strip rig dynamite to turtles and surreptitiously electrocute each other through a constantly changing variety of means, Tuck and FDR just spy on each other and compete in a run-of-the-mill pissing contest. Though “This Means War” tries to create an amusing and exciting genre fusion, not without a few successfully funny moments, the characters and potentially engaging spy plot are underdeveloped. The result is mostly bland and occasionally generic to the point of repugnancy.
—Staff writer Rebecca J. Mazur can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.