In “This Means War,” Chris Pine and Tom Hardy play Franklin and Tuck, CIA agents with a special kind of relationship. They would do anything for each other, even stop a bullet, if it came to that. Wouldn’t it be nice, Tuck asks, to have that kind of connection with a woman? But even with Reese Witherspoon as that woman, this screwball premise lives or dies by the chemistry between Pine and Hardy, who are too busy trying to out-appeal one another to make the buddy dynamic click. Misleadingly action-focused ads aside, this uneven affair could score a mid-field femme following.
Apart from the pic’s opening shootout and car-chase climax, there’s more testosterone to be found in either of director McG’s “Charlie’s Angels” efforts than in this predictably over-the-top outing. Though it wasn’t necessarily conceived that way, by casting Witherspoon as the object of its male leads’ obsession, “This Means War” becomes Lauren’s movie. She’s a successful single gal uneasily re-entering the dating world with the encouragement of ravenously horny married friend Trish (Chelsea Handler), whose every utterance smacks of insincere standup-comedy patter.
No sooner does Lauren discover that Trish has posted a saucy online personal ad on her behalf than she scores a date with adorable (and inexplicably British) Tuck, who may kill bad guys for a living, but at least passes her deal-breaker test of not being a serial killer. Lauren has more to fear from suave Franklin (short for his given name, FDR, or is it the other way around?), whom she meets in a mind-bogglingly well-stocked video-rental store minutes after her date with Tuck. With multiple copies of Hitchcock’s “The Lady Vanishes,” this location is perhaps the most incredible detail in a film that blithely coasts from suspension of disbelief into check-your-brain-at-the-door territory.
The script gives Lauren a few spunky lines with which to rebuff Franklin’s charms, then serves up a forced attempt at witty repartee the following day, after Franklin sneaks his way into one of the product-testing focus groups at Lauren’s work. But dialogue gets in the way of McG’s surface-oriented style, which is best used in nonverbal setpieces, like the one where Lauren sashays around her kitchen singing “This Is How We Do It” while her two suitors covertly look for clues on how best to seduce her.
As their dates grow increasingly preposterous, ranging from a private tour of Gustav Klimt paintings to a bloodthirsty afternoon at the paintball range, the dynamic shifts from frat-boy fantasy to female wish fulfillment, in which bachelorettes can imagine themselves being pursued by two hyper-attentive suitors, neither of whom has any reason to fall for Lauren as quickly as he does — unless it’s the competition that spurs them on. In which case, the clinch to witness is the one the film denies us, between Tuck and Franklin.
With previous roles, Hardy (“Bronson”) and Pine (“The Lieutenant of Inishmore” onstage) have played downright cold-blooded characters, but that streak is so far buried here, posing no real danger to Lauren — or to one another. Perhaps it’s the pic’s cartoonish tone that keeps them from doing much more than look pretty, trading on the stars’ blue eyes and impossibly big lips in lieu of their proven acting ability.
In the distant background, the agents have some unfinished business with a revenge-bent baddie named Heinrich (German megastar Til Schweiger, given too little to do here), which would ideally have given Witherspoon’s character a chance to get in on the action. Instead, the spy thing is just a ruse to explain away some genuinely creepy stalker behavior, as both Tuck and Franklin resort to using GPS devices and hidden cameras to monitor Lauren’s every move.
Amusing as it is to imagine America putting its terrorism-fighting efforts on hold in order to violate an intelligent single woman’s right to privacy, such high-concept malarkey can’t even seem to maintain plausibility on a basic scene-to-scene level. It’s not until nearly an hour in, when the spies’ never-entirely-convincing friendship devolves into creative one-upsmanship, that “This Means War” kicks into being the kind of ’80s-movie-style lark McG so clearly intends. But even then, it feels more like an arm-wrestling match than a full-blown war.