Thursday, February 16, 2012

Two spies compete for the love of one woman

This Means War: Another strained rom-com bites the dust.

Tom Hardy is an interesting young actor. Hardy made a strong impression as Ricky Tarr, a disillusioned spy in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. In the gritty -- if overpraised -- Warrior, he played a young man training for mixed martial arts combat.

If you really want to pull out all the Hardy stops, make an immediate point of seeing Bronson, a riveting British import in which Hardy played Michael Peterson, an unrepentant British criminal. And, yes, Hardy also appeared in Inception, in which he played a member of Leonardo Di Caprio’s dream-invading posse.

The 34-year-old Hardy is an interesting and versatile actor, one of those gifted performers who’s capable of being unrecognizable from picture to picture. That’s a good thing for him because Hardy’s appearance in This Mans War could mark a low point in what I trust will be a long and admirable career.

In this preposterous romance, Hardy plays a CIA agent who competes with another CIA agent (Chris Pine) for the affections of a perky woman (Reese Witherspoon) who hasn't had much luck when it comes to love.

Hardy portrays Tuck, a divorced father who shares a buddy bond with his long-time CIA partner FDR Foster (Pine). When the two demonstrate more improvisational flare than than the agency customarily tolerates, they wind up assigned to desk jobs by their no-nonsense boss (Angela Bassett). Basset’s so wasted in this movie, casting her amounts to a form of actor abuse.

The only thinking you’ll find here involves moving the screenplay from one contrivance to the next. Witherspoon portrays Lauren, a successful woman whose job involves evaluating consumer products. Each man meets Lauren independently of the other. When they discover they’re both taken with Lauren, they begin a competition for her affection, sometimes using sophisticated CIA surveillance equipment to aid them. And you were wondering why we have trillion dollar deficits.

To add an element of Mr. & Mrs. Smith-style danger, a fiendish criminal (Til Schweiger) is out to kill Tuck.

Although both agents are highly competitive, FDR is the more seasoned womanizer of the two. Tuck is a bit of a disadvantage in this area; he spends time with his young son and misses the family he lost, presumably because he was never around.

Comic actress Chelsea Handler rounds out the movie’s cast; she plays the sexually oriented, ultra-pragmatic and loud-mouthed best friend, a married woman who encourages Lauren to date both men and enjoy herself. Handler’s supposed to offer comic relief, but her role proves as cliched as roles get in this kind of strained rom-com affliction.

Perhaps as a sop to men who are dragged to This Means War, director McG (Terminator Salvation, Charlie's Angels and We Are Marshall) dishes out action, staging a bruising fight in a restaurant and an over-the-top finale involving a car chase. OK, we’re watching a fantasy romance, but in what world is it possible for two men to engage in a fight that destroys an upscale restaurant without the police showing up?

Pine, who appeared as young Captain Kirk in the 2009 edition of Star Trek and who had a nice turn with Denzel Washington in Unstoppable, doesn't exactly burn up the screen here. Hardy's a bit better at carrying his share of this unsavory load, and Witherspoon tries to bring spunk to a character that’s about as believable as CIA agents who act like frat boys. I wasn’t a fan of Water for Elephants -- Witherspoon’s last movie -- but at least that picture showed some ambition, which is more than can be said for This Means War, which tries to merge three genres -- romance, action and comedy -- and winds up making a mockery of each.

Besides, who needs a romance in which there’s more action in the streets than between the sheets? This Means War is a dud.

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