Director McG knows how to direct fun, energetic froth. Just look at the “Charlie’s Angels” movies, and there, he had three game females to work with. In the action romantic-comedy hybrid “This Means War,” which should’ve been an enjoyable lark, only the appealing talent involved makes it watchable in the very least. Seeing Tom Hardy and Chris Pine wage war for Reese Witherspoon might get the guys and their Valentine date’s butts into the theater, but mostly, it’s a bare-minimum trifle of a movie for a trifle of a holiday.
FDR (Chris Pine) and Tuck (Tom Hardy) are CIA operative buddies. Their covert mission to capture Russian arms dealer Heinrich (Til Schweiger) in Hong Kong turns out to be anything but covert, so they’re “grounded” to desk work by their hard-as-nails boss (Angela Bassett). Tuck gives dating a shot when he meets Lauren Scott (Reese Witherspoon), an L.A. consumer-products tester whose sassy married BFF, Trish (Chelsea Handler), sets her up a profile on an online dating site. Lauren hits it off with Tuck on their first date, but immediately after, right around the corner actually, she stops into a video store (what are those?) and coincidentally bumps into the womanizing FDR. Keeping her options open, Lauren decides to date both hunks, who pose as a cruise ship captain and a travel agent, respectively. Once Tuck and FDR realize they’re after the same girl, both male alphas won’t back off the prize, competing for Lauren’s affections by lying to her (FDR pretending to be a softie that frequents at a puppy shelter) and sabotaging the other’s date. And to keep tabs on her, they both secretly slink around her apartment to plant surveillance cameras and sound bugs. Of course, they make a pact not to let Lauren come in between their friendship, but that’s going to be a hard deal. Meanwhile, Heinrich plots revenge on FDR and Tuck, who killed his brother on their failed mission.
The three actors are all easy on the eyes, have acting chops, and are game enough to play with such idiotic material. But they can only hold their end of the bargain for so long. The script, written by Simon Kinberg (“Mr. & Mrs. Smith”) and Timothy Dowling (“Just Go With It”) who worked from a story by first-timer Marcus Gautesen, surely doesn’t help them. For the full run-time, the “high-concept” premise runs its one-note course with a flimsy crime plot sandwiched in between. Why these two confident best friends would fight over the same girl after only a few dates and employ teenage-level tactics is beyond comprehension. But it’s supposed to be a hilarious gimmick, so we should suspend all disbelief and stop making too much out of nothing, right?
The romantic outcome isn’t what one might expect and the skeleton-out-of-the-closet finale is pretty sloppy, but both go to show that Lauren has a foolish taste in men. She never seems to ask the right questions either. For instance, when Lauren is at a trendy restaurant with Tuck, FDR shows up but they pretend to just be meeting one another for the first time. Once Lauren goes to the restroom, the two friends break out in a knock-down fight, roundhouse kicking each other through glass walls and jumping off a second-floor bannister onto tables. The whole restaurant clears out, but when Lauren returns, the only thing that seems to upset her is the two guys being friends. “Was this some kind of bet?” she moans. Uh, what about the entire restaurant being completely demolished? And when it comes for the guys to leave, without any staff or authorities confronting them, the valet driver simply hands them the keys.
McG makes sure the spastic pace doesn’t sprint below a speed limit of 100. A covert Hong Kong mission supplies the film’s hyperkinetic opening action set-piece, complete with a shoot-out and people hanging off of a penthouse ledge. Too bad the phony green-screen down below sucks out all the potential danger and excitement. The other over-the-top action scene is the climax on the L.A. highway. It isn’t overly protracted but is staged so cartoonishly in slo-mo and looks processed. And since the crime plot has been such an uninvolving afterthought until now, the destruction of the highway and public property aren’t given much thought either.
Hardy is charismatic and magnetic as ever, and exhibits a sensitivity with the subplot of taking his 7-year-old son to martial-arts practice. Pine is charming, but his FDR is so much of a cocky, smarmy schmoozer at his core that he deserves a free ride to charm school, not a girlfriend. As Lauren, Witherspoon coasts along, being cute and perky, but she’s reduced to a tug-of-war object. Once again, after “How Do You Know,” the actress must feel taking the roles of indecisive women are enough. Chelsea Handler is ready to rip for her first screen project, playing Lauren’s gal pal Trish, but her barbs are the sitcom-written kind where all women like to sit around, chatting about orgasms while hilariously downing glasses of wine. She’s supposed to be the comic relief and voice of randy, booze-soaked reason. Given her bawdy talk-show presence and authorship, it’s a surprise that the lone “F” word isn’t assigned to Handler, whose sex jokes were reportedly trimmed for a PG-13 rating.
In an action rom-com, a little chemistry doesn’t hurt if the central contrivance can’t be bought and the banter hasn’t been sharpened. The only on-camera chemistry that really sizzles is the bromantic kind between Hardy and Pine. Otherwise, “This Means War” is slick, star-powered product pure and simple, a his-and-her pleaser for the Valentine’s Day weekend. But as a film, it doesn’t excite, doesn’t make you swoon, and only occasionally makes you chuckle.
98 min., rated PG-13.