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This Means War
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Finally--A Film That Gives The CIA A Bad Name. . ."
1 stars

A little over a year ago, a movie came out entitled "How Do You Know" in which Reese Witherspoon played an adorable-yet-inexplicably-unattached woman who unexpectedly found herself torn between two distinctly different suitors--one an unapologetically hedonistic ladies man with glimmers of a sensitive side and the other an overtly shy and sensitive type who has been burned before in the romance department--and forced to choose between them despite having a certain degree of affection for both. Like the other films from its creator, writer-director James L. Brooks (the man behind "Broadcast News," "As Good as it Gets" and the wildly underrated "I'll Do Anything"), it was smart, sweet, insightful and very funny but for some reason, it didn't spark with most critics or audiences and it went down as one of the bigger box-office flops of recent times. (That said, it is much better than its reputation might suggest and is definitely worth checking out as soon as it is feasible.) However, Hollywood is always willing and eager to recycle an old idea in lieu of coming up with a new one and now we have "This Means War," in which Reese Witherspoon plays an adorable-yet-inexplicably-unattached woman who unexpectedly finds herself torn between two distinctly different suitors--one an unapologetically hedonistic ladies man with glimmers of a sensitive side and the other an overtly shy and sensitive type who has been burned before in the romance department--and is forced to choose between them despite having a certain degree of affection for both.

Of course, the filmmakers couldn't copy everything from "How Do You Know" and so in order to draw a distinct separation between the two, all of that film's wit, charm and intelligence has been deftly removed and replaced with unlikable characters, an idiotic storyline and numerous chases, shoot-outs and explosions presumably designed to either divert audience attention from its countless shortcomings or to simply wake them up after its equally countless dull spots. The result is the kind of soul-sucking disaster that is bad enough to put people off of going to the movies at all for the immediate future and the most depressing thing about it is that, barring an outbreak of good taste from the American viewing public, there is an excellent chance that it could wind up making more money in its opening weekend than "How Do You Know" managed to scrape up in its entire run.

WItherspoon stars as Lauren, a consumer products tester who, to judge from the size of her office and apartment, is clearly the most financially successful person in the history of her field and she gets to wield flamethrowers as part of her daily work routine. Alas, like all fabulously successful women who get to shoot off flamethrowers in the office and resemble Reese Witherspoon, Lauren just can't seem to find herself a fella. Luckily for her, if not for us, she has a brash, bawdy Chelsea Handler-wannabe best friend in Trish (played, perhaps inevitably, by Chelsea Handler) who takes it upon herself to try to alleviate that problem by signing Lauren up to an Internet dating service. Despite the fact that the page created by Trish looks like the kind of layout that Maxim magazine might reject for being too gauche for their sensibility, she gets a response and goes out to meet Tuck (Tom Hardy), a hunky travel agent with a British accent and manner so smooth and assured that he makes the great Benedict Cumberbatch seem like some dope from south Jersey by comparison. Everything goes well but when Lauren goes into a nearby video store (yes, such things still exist in the world of this film) to rent a movie and is immediately chatted up by FDR (Chris Pine), a fast-talking cruise ship captain who tries to woo her by recommending that she rent what he considers to be an "obscure" Hitchcock film--a little-known thing called "The Lady Vanishes," by the way--and she counters by saying that she vastly prefers his 1960-72 output. Despite the borderline insanity of this claim (I dig "Psycho," "The Birds" and "Frenzy" and consider "Marnie" to be an underrated masterpiece but not even the most hard-core auteurist could make a case for the alleged genius of "Torn Curtain" or "Topaz"), sparks fly between the two and before long, Lauren is dating both of them.

What Lauren doesn't know--but which we do right from the start--is that Tuck and FDR a.) are best friends and b.) CIA spies who have currently been relegated to desk duty after a "covert" mission ends in gunfire, explosions, wacky deaths and the escape of generic bad guy Heinrich (Til Schweiger). When they discover that they are both seeing Lauren, they make a gentleman's agreement to continue seeing her simultaneously without interfering with each other or revealing the truth to her and letting her decide which one she prefers. Of course, that sort of thing might work for one of those European-type film but that simply won't do for something made in the U.S.A. As a result, the agreement between Tuck and FDR quickly fall by the wayside as both of them exploit the resources of the CIA in order to get a better sense of what Lauren in looking for in a fella and to sabotage each other's romantic efforts (one sends a drone to tag along on a date while the other brings a swift end to a romantic rendezvous via a tranquilizer dart fired from a high-powered rifle). Because Lauren is apparently not the sharpest knife in the drawer, she doesn't seem to notice that anything especially odd is going on--not even when Tuck reverts to ruthless marksman mode during a paintball match--but once Henrich (remember him?) finally turns up again to set off the orgy of car crashes, gunfire and explosions that dominate the final reels--it finally begins to dawn on her that there may be more to her beaus than initially meets the eye.

"This Means War"--or as I like to call it, "Two Guys, a Girl and the Clandestine Government Agency That Backed the Overthrow of the Democratically-Elected Government of Chile in 1973"--was directed by the auteur known as McG and personally, the sight of his name in the credits fills me with both dread and relief. On the one hand, he is the man who directed what I consider to be the single worst film that I have ever had the displeasure to sit through in my entire life. That film would be "Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle," a sleazy monstrosity that managed to take many things that I previously enjoyed watching on the big screen--goofball plotting, the comedy stylings of John Cleese and the merry presence of Drew Barrymore among them--and handled them in such a grotesque manner that for months afterwards, just the mere mention of the film would send me into a full-body retch a la "A Clockwork Orange." On the other hand, the odds that one person could make the two worst movies of all time seemed ridiculously remote and so when I went to see such subsequent McG joints as "We Are Marshall" and "Terminator: Salvation," I went into them under the assumption that they might be terrible--and they were--but they almost certainly couldn't be worse than "Full Throttle." This may not sound like the most logical way to approach the movie but it is such things that help to preserve a little bit on sanity in a profession that could reduce the minds of most people to mush after a while.

True, "This Means War" is not quite as bad as "Full Throttle" but it is the closest that he, or most other filmmakers, have come to that dubious achievement in a while. This is the kind of high-concept project that, in the right hands, can result in the kind of amusing diversion that can pass a couple of hours in a relatively painless manner. Sadly, none of those hands seem to have come anywhere near this film because this is one of those rare films where virtually nothing seems to work, even in regards to the most basic tents of storytelling or cinematic grammar. The screenplay by Timothy Dowling and Simon Kinberg (the latter perhaps best know for penning the somewhat similar "Mr. & Mrs. Smith," a film that wasn't exactly a masterpiece but which comes across like some kind of masterpiece when compared to this one) is a haphazard compendium that borrows bits and pieces from any number of familiar genres but then has no idea how to put them all together into a cohesive whole. Perhaps recognizing the narrative deficiencies of the screenplay and presumably deciding that rewrites are for squares who might actually care about the quality of the material they were presenting, McG seems to have decided that the best approach to the material is to present everything is such an exaggerated and cartoonish manner that viewers will be too distracted by all the surrounding elements (such as al the characters living in places that appear to be way, way out of their pay grades--one even has a glass-bottomed swimming pool for a ceiling that allows him to get an eyeful of the babes doing their laps above) that they might not notice that none of it makes even a lick of sense. Even the over-the-top action sequences that are McG's presumed forte look like absolute gibberish here thanks to their heavy-handed editing and the apparent lack of any sense of spatial geography--whoever cut the commercials and trailers actually appears to have a far better grasp on putting together coherent action beats than McG demonstrates in the film proper.

Of course, even a film as monumentally stupid as "This Means War" can still work on some basic and fundamental level as long as the characters are interesting and engaging but that aspect winds up being the final nail in the film's coffin. For starters, the very presence of Reese Witherspoon in something as resolutely brainless as this is absolutely mystifying--this is the kind of disposable junk that most serious actresses tend to shy away from as soon as they earn an Oscar or achieve a certain level of industry clout. Maybe she signed on in the belief that it could be a relatively painless lark but to judge from her performance, it appears that it dawned on her early in the production (though long after the contracts were signed) that she was stuck in the kind of shrill mess that one might ordinarily expect Katherine Heigl to appear in and as a result, she simply coasts through the proceedings with the kind of palpable aura of distaste for the proceedings that makes her work in "Legally Blonde 2" seem fiercely committed by comparison. As the two guys competing for Witherspoon's heart, among other organs, Chris Pine and Tom Hardy are just as disappointing--Pine smugs his way through the proceedings acting as though he were auditioning for the lead in another "NCIS" spin-off while Hardy is so blandly forgettable that it boggles the mind that this is the same guy who burned up the screen with his appearances in films like "Bronson," "Inception" and "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy." Things are even more depressing below the line when the electrifying Angela Bassett turns up in what used to be known as the Viola Davis Role--she turns up for about six minutes of screen time as Tuck and FDR's superior, spouting a few lines of exposition before disappearing, and leaves you wondering what could have possibly induced her to sign on. Worst of all is the presence of Chelsea Handler in what I might have once referred to as the Eve Arden Role if it weren't for the fact that Arden never did anything to deserve such a designation. Playing less a character than a vague extension of her allegedly comedic persona, she is so awful, so unfunny and so brutally unpleasant that after watching her, you'll want to start wearing a T-shirt that reads "JERRY LEWIS WAS RIGHT!" In fact, the only genuine laugh to be had in the entire film is a line of nasty dialogue at her expense that is amusing only because it is the one time when the film and the audience seem to be totally in sync with each other.

Lacking the comic timing, finesse or romantic conviction of the Bugs Bunny cartoons where the title was lifted from, "This Means War" is the kind of movie that is sure to inspire long and regretful talks between its actors and their agents as well as between any couples in which one inexplicably finds something of value in it. It isn't funny, exciting or romantic and if you actually manage to stick it out to the bitter end to see how it all turns out (not that it really matters since McG has bragged publicly about shooting multiple endings, the clearest possible suggestion that no one involved had any interest in telling a story that came to a convincing or satisfactory conclusion), all you will be left with is the sense of utter contempt that McG and company clearly have for their audience. This is a lazy, corporate-minded craptacular that has nothing more on its mind than inspiring a large opening weekend gross and nothing more. Will it achieve that particular goal? Probably, even though that is less a testament to its inherent quality than to its hard-sell publicity campaign. Will any of those who turn out to see it during that opening weekend remember anything about it six months or even six weeks later? If they are extremely fortunate, hopefully not.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=21721&reviewer=389
originally posted: 02/16/12 20:26:33
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User Comments

1/16/13 Mr Right Watched the first 10 minutes of this piece of shit & mourn that I shall never get them back 1 stars
5/25/12 Kevin C um...Reese has been better 2 stars
2/20/12 KingNeutron Pine's "performance" was teeth-grindingly AWFUL -- waste of money 1 stars
2/19/12 AARON LONGG AWFUL 1 stars
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  17-Feb-2012 (PG-13)
  DVD: 22-May-2012


  DVD: 22-May-2012

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