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Non-Review Review: This Means War

It’s hard to find anything redeeming in McG’s This Means War, a romantic comedy that attempts to court the male demographic with promises of car chases and explosions and action sequences. However, the movie has some rather unpleasant undertones as it devolves into a competition between two male friends to see who can effectively trick a beautiful young woman into falling in love with them. Interestingly, the movie is primarily about these two guys and their relationship, with the (supposed) object of their affection serving as a glorified prop.

War and pieces...

I’ve always been somewhat fascinated with Hollywood’s obsession with macho homoeroticism, and the socially conservative border-line homophobia that surrounds it. While most buddy cop (or spy or soldier) films will indulge in some rather wonderful homoerotic bonding, it seems that mainstream blockbusters recoil in horror at actual suggestion of any guy-on-guy love. I suspect that’s why we see so many poorly-developed love interests shoe-horned into these movies, as if to assert that these hyper-macho caricatures are 100% straight. It’s sometimes hilariously awkward to see movies dance around the issue, unsure whether to embrace the subtext or to completely deny it.

This Means War is a love story. However, it isn’t a love story that features Reese Witherspoon’s character. No, it’s a love story between two guys, who work together, would take a bullet for one another, and are trying to find that missing piece of the puzzle. She’s just a piece of set decoration, treated as an object to be fought over by the men in the cast, who repeatedly lie to her and manipulate her, without any regard for her. The competition between the two men doesn’t even start over any deep-seated affection for her. The two guys meet her, they arrange a date, and they discover they’re dating the same woman. One guy is willing to “back off” to allow his mate the chance to find true love, out of an abiding male respect.

Hardy buck...

It’s only when the two guys start hurling insults at each other that we decide to make things interesting, so to speak. It’s essentially a macho contest, an attempt by both super-spies to assert their status as “top dog.” The “prize” in their contest isn’t even the affection of the lady in question – it’s knowing that they are more masculine than their adversary. The girl could be anyone, or anything. She’s just a plot device for the two guys to fight over.

You can tell this from three ground rules they establish. The first is that they can’t tell her what’s going on – because that would allow her to make decisions in her own interest, and we can’t have that. She is literally out of the loop on this one. The second rule is that the competition must not impact on their completely heterosexual male friendship. The movie feels an awkward need to stress this point, with each character professing their love for the other, only to immediately clarify that they’re “like family.”

Exit strategy...

The third rule is “no hanky panky.” This is probably to stop either guy from appearing like a completely sleazy chauvinist pig to the audience – apparently playing a sinister game like this with a human being is fine as long as she keeps her pants on. However, it can’t help but feel like a mutually-agreed attempt to limit the potential damage she could cause to their relationship – to avoid any feelings of bitterness or jealousy between two partners trying to assert their own masculinity. Indeed, at the end of the film, the loser explains that he didn’t break that rule. “I only let you think that to make you jealous,” he states. They’re like an extremely passive-aggressive old married couple.

It’s telling that the emotional climax of the film has nothing to do with Reese Witherspoon’s character. She does get upset (very briefly) when she discovers the gamble, but seems to forget it almost immediately. After the obligatory action sequence, she’s curling up in the arms of her beloved, somehow forgetting the fact that she’d been treated like a chip in a poker game. However, the emotional peak of the movie sees the two guys trying to come to terms with the new status quo. “See you in the office?” one gingerly asks, as if afraid to lose the one person who truly understands him. Being entirely honest, I would have applauded the film for ending with our two male leads reconciling their feelings from one another and walking off into the sunset together.

Well suited to it...

The script is terrible. The basic premise is more than a little bit sexist and offensive, but the script does very little to inject any life into proceedings. The characters are all unlikable douches, despite the script’s attempt to make them”edgy.” Reese Witherspoon’s character, for example, is introduced wielding a flame-thrower, as if to appeal to the guys in the audience. Our two spies are woefully inept. During an extraction at a strip club, it seems like the only guy they kill is a poor innocent waiter in the wrong place at the wrong time. We’re told the opening mission ends with one casualty, but I wonder what happened to the person in the car.

That’s before we get into the supposedly hilarious privacy invasion stuff (“Patriot Act!” one character yells as a cheap joke at one point). Or that fact that one character proves he’s a decent human being by turning down no-strings-attached sex with an attractive woman we’ve never seen before. The script is a mess, riddled with terrible jokes and really bad exposition. “Because of you idiots,” we’re told, “Heinrich will want revenge for his brother.” Nevermind that we’ve just seen his brother die, or the fact that he was staring at our heroes in a way that indicated he wanted revenge, or the fact that we later see him… kinda… planning his revenge. It’s not the only example.

She's a knock-out all right...

McG gets a lot of flack for his work. I’ll concede that Terminator: Salvation was a mess, and I think that’s because the director doesn’t work well with heavier stuff. I have a fondness for his Charlie’s Angels films as a bit of a guilty pleasure, and I think McG excels at that sort of light music-video-esque direction. I don’t think that This Means Wars plays to his strengths as fully as those Charlie’s Angels films did, but he’s a lot more comfortable than he was on Terminator. His fight scenes are too jumbled, to the point where it’s difficult to see what’s going on, and I hate the silly head’s-up display scene transitions that he does.

On the other hand, he actually manages a few shots that work quite well within the context of the film, and he generally does the best he can with the source material he is working with. I don’t think he’s an unsung talent, or a master of form, but I don’t think he’s the hack that many consider him to be.There are moments in the film that work purely because McG knows how to handle empty style, even if he struggles a bit with the substance that should underpin it.

The paint ball's in his court...

In particular, I quite liked a sequence, shot in one take, which saw two separate home invasions at the same time, with all three characters caught in a series of near-misses. It’s light-hearted, it’s silly, and it works. It is choreographed with considerable skill. There’s another nice little sequence where one of our spies gets competitive at paintball. It works because McG knows how to effectively parody himself. Of course, there’s only so much the man can do, and the scene dies down when somebody inevitably gets hit in the crotch with something.

The three leads do their best with the script. I think Reese Witherspoon is the queen of these sorts of silly romantic comedies, even if they don’t exactly push her talents to the limit. She has a bubbly personality and a wonderful sense of fun that almost allows you to forget that her character is little more than a MacGuffin for the guys to fight over. Chris Pine is grand, even if he is stuck playing the worst-written character in the film, with a traumatic childhood written in to explain his douche behaviour. And Tom Hardy is remarkably fun to watch, a testament to his talent. Though I can see why the Weinstein Company held back the release of The Wettest County in the World until after The Dark Knight Rises.

Counter-intelligence...

It’s hard to recommend This Means War. What little ingredients stand in its favour are overwhelmed by monumental and overriding flaws. One might be able to overlook the blatant misogyny of the premise if it was funny… but it isn’t.

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4 Responses

  1. Nice review Darren. All of these leads try their hardest, but the script just lets them down too much with terrible jokes and very ugly feeling underneath this premise. I just thought this one was completely stupid and it’s really surprising to see some major critics back it up.

    • It’s that ugly feeling I couldn’t get past. I kinda want to write a long rant about the sexism of modern romantic comedies, but I’m afraid that if I start, I won’t stop.

  2. It’s a pretty ugly piece of work. I’m amazed you didn’t touch on Chelsea Handler’s laughless role, which ground the movie to a halt for me.

    • I don’t know. She seemed to be the only character who got any consistant laughs from my audience. Even if I wasn’t too impressed, I think she did the best she could with the role and the material.

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