I wonder what would happen if they showed this movie to critics without McG’s name on it.
Certain directors become punching bags over the course of their careers, and it’s not always just because of their filmmaking. In the case of McG, his name does not help him at all, no matter how many times he explains it was a childhood nickname. It also doesn’t help that he’s incredibly earnest when he talks about his work, and that there’s a hard-earned defensiveness as well. He came to make a presentation at BNAT the year before his “Terminator: Salvation” came out, and by the end of his appearance, he’d turned a fair percentage of the audience against him. As he left, someone in my row commented, “McG was going to stay longer to talk to us, but he had to get back to The Learning Annex to teach his ‘How To Be A Douchebag’ class.” He talked an entire room full of people out of being excited about his movie through sheer force of personality.
The thing is, nothing he’s made really deserves that level of animosity. He’s not technically incompetent. He has a music video pop sensibility that isn’t especially deep, but he knows how to stage action and he’s got a big broad sense of humor. When I hear people refer to someone like McG as the worst of modern filmmaking, it makes me think that they don’t see many films, or that they’ve got him prejudged to such a degree that they don’t really see his films when they watch them.
“This Means War” has the added extra edge of being a romantic comedy, a genre that is largely reviled by critics. My own viewing of the film was complicated by a truly horrific audience member, but what I noticed in the comments from many of you was a general attitude of “Well, at least it was just a terrible movie,” and I’m willing to bet that most of the people leaving variations on those comments haven’t seen the movie yet.
I do everything I can to walk into every movie with as blank a slate as possible. In this case, I was more aware than normal of how much disdain was focused on the picture, and that made it harder to shut all of that out. Once the film began, though, one thought kept occurring to me: “What’s everyone so upset about in the first place?”
“This Means War,” with a script credited to Timothy Dowling and Simon Kinberg, is the story of two CIA agents whose long-standing partnership is threatened when they both find themselves falling in love with the same woman. Chris Pine plays FDR, and Tom Hardy plays Tuck, with Reese Witherspoon starring as the woman who comes between them. The film plays as heightened reality from the very start, when we see FDR and Tuck on the job. This is spy cinema in a post-Bond world, with everything cranked all the way up, and it looks exactly the way you’d expect it would look from the director of “Charlie’s Angels.” It’s a pop cartoon, and it’s calorie free, and it’s kind of fun. There’s nothing about the spy side of things that is meant to be consequential, though. This isn’t a hard-hitting political piece, and it’s not meant to be.
Instead, the spy side of things is simply a backdrop against which the love story takes place, and it gives Pine and Hardy an excuse to play rough when they start to compete for Witherspoon’s affections. That’s really what the film is about, and it’s a chance to externalize these feelings that romantic rivalry brings out in a very big and ridiculous way. It’s an absurd premise, and they tie themselves in knots to figure out a way to bring Pine and Hardy and Witherspoon together so that nobody is the overt “bad guy,” but once you accept that central premise, the film has a light, casual ease to it. It is confident at what it’s doing.
So… is it good? There are certainly things I liked about it. Chris Pine is fascinating to me. In “Star Trek” and in this film, he’s building this very particular comic persona that I don’t think anyone else is doing right now. He looks like the MAD magazine caricature of himself, all pronounced brow and hyperblue eyes and this giant head, and he has a ridiculous confidence that he mines for laughs instead of cool. Tom Hardy deserves credit for pushing his own persona in a very different direction with his work here. We’re getting used to seeing him as the jacked-up animal, and I’m guessing that will be true of this summer’s “The Dark Knight Rises” as well. Here, he’s the sensitive one, even though he’s still at maximum density. He sort of reminds me of the unique presence of Oliver Reed, who you could describe as a “dainty ape.” Hardy and Pine both are almost surreal the way they’re shot here, and I give McG credit for realizing this is meant to be fantasy for all the ladies in the house. Reese is the one with all the options, and in a movie where she’s the third prettiest person in the cast, it’s obvious whose fantasies are being most clearly indulged here.
Til Schweiger plays the bad guy in the film, and that’s pretty much all there is to his character. He is “the bad guy,” and he’s got one or two scenes where he gets to glower, but again… this movie’s pretty profoundly unconcerned with the spy business. Angela Bassett is equally wasted as the CIA director who both Pine and Hardy answer to. Chelsea Handler shows up as Trish, Witherspoon’s best friend, and she’s basically playing the archetype that is normally played by a dude, the wise-ass extra-dirty Greek chorus. I’m not a fan, but she does what she was hired to do. That’s kind of the way the whole film works. People do what they were hired to do, they do it well, and it all just kind of flies by painlessly.
Basically, check out the trailer for the film. If it’s even remotely appealing to you, that’s the film. They aren’t remotely misleading anyone. I find the demonization of McG to be a little ridiculous, and I give him credit for the casting of Pine and Hardy and giving them room to have fun with their own images, and for the sly (yes, I just accused McG of being sly) way the film tweaks the typical gender roles in Hollywood romantic comedies. “This Means War” isn’t going to stick with me, but it’s a pleasant diversion, which is all it means to be.
Can’t really complain about that.
“This Means War” opens Friday.