“The best product always wins,” declares Lauren (Reese Witherspoon) early on in McG’s “This Means War,” brusquely establishing her approach to professional conduct – she’s a product tester in some candy-colored SoCal workplace – and romantic relationships alike. The sentiment also sets the bar much too high for the movie itself, as the action-comedy proceeds to deliver a sporadically amusing rivalry between two government agents for Lauren’s incredibly indecisive affections in between action sequences that reek of Fox’s notorious post-production meddling.
The company men in question are FDR (Chris Pine) and Tuck (Tom Hardy), totes BFFs who have the back of one another out in the field. However, thanks to the magic of online dating and numerous other contrivances, the former (a free-wheeling bachelor) and the latter (a divorced father of one) end up equally head over heels for this smokin’ hot heir apparent to fretful comic-strip spinster Cathy. Initially aloof, the two men agree to play it cool and let her choose, but it isn’t long before we’re subjected to a full-blown love triangle with lens flares between these three equally infantile workaholics, two of whom just happen to be spies.
An ungainly union of C.I.A. and O.P.P. ensues, as FDR and Tuck each exploit agency resources to keep tabs on Lauren as she dates either one or the other and then confers with Trish (Chelsea Handler), a relentlessly wise-cracking married pal who is positively desperate to fuck either man vicariously through her. Every once in a while, vague terrorist type Heinrich (Til Schweiger) pops up in shadowy scenes to remind everyone that he’s intended to be the chief threat to our operatives once they’re done cock-blocking one another with the help of satellites and surveillance taps.
There’s a continuous shot in which both men bug Lauren’s home as she dances around to “This is How We Do It” that feels like the raison d’etre for this high-tech, high-concept picture, a moment of smooth nonsense that still feels moderately skeevy underneath all the flash. “Creepy or romantic? It’s cro-mantic,” FDR quips at one point. Hell, it’s practically Cro-Magnon how these two abuse each other for the sake of hittin’ dat, with the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage” slyly playing on the soundtrack during acts of, yep, sabotage. The basic charms of both male leads has been plainly apparent in other projects, and there’s little doubting the potential for chemistry between the two, but no one fares well in the service of limp innuendo and crotch shots of all kinds.
The usually dynamic Hardy is relatively new to comedic material, but he’s no better or worse off than Pine or anyone else in the ensemble when it comes to the bluster and bickering that dominates the screenplay by Simon Kinberg (“Mr. and Mrs. Smith“), Timothy Dowling (“Just Go With It“) and Marcus Gautesen. Witherspoon is similarly saddled with positively teenage uncertainty to the extent that she genuinely panics at the prospect of running into a former flame on the street without a man in hand. Even in 2012, it would seem that someone out there still thinks it’s funny when a grown woman walks into a sushi bar and the man behind the counter loudly announces her intentions to order a meal for one. What’s worse is that, even with a goddamn SUV flying at her head, Lauren can hardly seem to make up her mind between the pair of hunks flanking her at the film’s climax. She’s a keeper all right.
Of course, to decipher that much out of any given set piece is a feat unto itself. Glossy and campy though 2002’s “Charlie’s Angels” may have been, at least it had clear-headed action to its credit. But if the director’s first film was an adequate piece of bubble gum that lost its pop the second time around, “This Means War” stands as a ground-grazing lollipop, rough around the edges and flecked with crumbs and odd hairs. The opening rooftop shootout is more often than not an incomprehensible blur, with a subsequent strip club chase and equally hectic restaurant brawl following suit. The whole kit and caboodle ends on a nigh incompetent highway chase that detours, with no apparent transition or established geography, in and out of a parking garage. (It’s a beat naturally witnessed by Tuck’s son on a news helicopter’s camera, though how he determines that his father is caught up in the lower-level melee when clearly shown a rooftop view is just one of several mind-boggling moments.) If nothing else, McG’s direction on “Terminator: Salvation” reinforced his capacity for adept and even exciting action scenes, but the frenzied outcome here makes one long for the comparative lucidity of 2010’s “Knight and Day.”
Then again, we’re talking about the kind of film where a scene in a video store – remember those? – showcases titles like “Enemy at the Gates” and “From Hell” under a clearly marked “Comedy” section. (What can we say, the clarity of digital projection doesn’t do all films equal favors.) It’s an admittedly tiny detail, yet one that is reflective of an overall indifference that permeates almost every facet of this barely bearable piece of fluff. A rom-com about love without a single character worth liking, an action flick burdened with intermittent bombast, “This Means War” wouldn’t be quite so trying if anybody involved had tried a little harder. [D+]