Beware. If ever you happen to be a CIA agent, taking on a nasty Russian gangster, it’s worth buying a generic suit.
Because, and we kid you not, at one stage in McG’s latest, This Means War, said gangster is able to track down Chris Pine’s agent, just by taking a bit of cloth to a Savile Row tailor. If you manage to suppress a guffaw, then you’re doing a lot better than us.
There’s about 20 minutes of the film where it all hangs together, in all. It’s a movie about Chris Pine and Tom Hardy, as two friends and CIA agents, who find themselves competing for the affection of the same woman, played by Reese Witherspoon. And as the two bring in hi-tech equipment to spy on each other’s efforts at romance, the film bursts into some kind of life. It’s energised, too, by the interplay between Pine and Hardy, who make a strong double act. And there’s very much the foundation of an entertaining, knockabout action comedy.
The problem, though, is that This Means Wars is a mess, with some frustrating issues that could easily have been ironed out.
McG directs, and he tones down his style considerably (and impressively), to the film’s benefit. You can see what’s going on in his action sequences, and he all-but-drops gimmicky tricks.
What he doesn’t do, though, is tone down the noise. Much of the film is accompanied by a loud, thumping score that, rather than accompanying the movie, gets in the way of it. Even when two characters are just walking and talking, there’s a musical backing of such volume that you often struggle to hear what’s actually being said.
At one point later in the movie, Witherspoon has a decent one-liner that’s simply lost in the screeching of tyres and the noise from McG’s stereo. Wondering if it was just us, we enquired of one or two others who had caught the film. They experienced same problem. It’s not that it’s a bad score, it’s just badly, badly used.
Then there’s Reese Witherspoon’s character, Lauren. As is the norm in films like this, she’s unaware that the two people battling for her affections know each other. And you can pretty much get your crayons out and outline the narrative journey fairly easily.
However, Lauren is about as unsympathetic a female lead as we can remember in recent times. There are moments as the film progresses where we should feel for her, and the position she’s in, and perhaps even warm to her. Yet she proves quite unpleasant too, and, without spoiling anything, approaches things in a way that makes her just as morally dubious as Hardy and Pine’s characters.
In Witherspoon’s defence, the problem here is in the screenplay, although her performance is the latest evidence that the days of Tracy Flick are a long, long way behind her.
Where the film is at its strongest is when its ideas are at their simplest, and there’s no shame in that at all. Tom Hardy in particular is on fine form, and at some point, somebody will cast him in a comedy lead that will do his considerable potential in the genre justice. As it stands, it’s his and Pine’s charm and interplay that generates the humour, rather than well-worked lines on the page.
We simply can’t shake the feeling that it’s baffling This Means War has been allowed to go so off the rails. There have been daft films before, with ludicrous plot moves, that have still amounted to a decent night out at the movies. That’s the path that, on paper, This Means War should have been following.
But it’s been bungled. Its screenplay really could have used another edit or two, and its execution has failed to make the most of what was there in the first place. McG, to his credit, gets one half of the directing mix about right, yet still squanders the opportunity in front of him. Given his work on the excellent Chuck, a TV show not too far away in concept to This Means War, that’s a real surprise.
It’s no disaster, and it’s not dull, but This Means War is a forgettable, not entirely pleasant piece of cinema, that falls some way below the potential of those involved.