Our students know more about differential equations than they do about history, or so I’ve heard my teaching friends moan. Maybe this is why the makers of the new romantic action picture “This Means War” figure they can name one of their characters “FDR.” Perhaps they could have named another “Woodrow ‘He Kept Us Out of War’ Wilson” and another “Richard ‘I Am Not a Crook’ Nixon” without changing the moviegoing audience’s ideas about the characters.
Heck, the movie was advertised as “Spy vs. Spy,” and only old Mad magazine readers would remember that reference. Even making the lead male characters, FDR (Chris Pine) and Tuck (Tom Hardy) CIA agents WORKING IN CALIFORNIA probably doesn’t distract the target demographic from the movie’s fun. But then the film itself had a little history—Bradley Cooper was originally cast in this and managed to sneak out claiming “scheduling conflicts.”
Foster (I can’t bring myself to call him “FDR”) and Tuck begin the movie with an action sequence. This rouses our hopes. Video director McG, who also did the Charlie’s Angels movies and “We Are Marshall,” has in the past shown some skill in using action. Here the boys break up an exchange between Asiatic and German (?) criminals—why these foreigners meet in Los Angeles I was never sure.
In the chaos, the head German villain, Heinrich, sees his brother killed. He vows revenge on Tuck and Foster. Maybe that’s like Stephen Foster. Would the audience associate Stephen Foster with “Oh! Suzanna?”
For our two heroes, though, spying (in California) is a nine to five job. While their underlings are supposedly searching for Heinrich, Foster and Tuck (like the Friar) try dating ploys. The latter uses a computer dating service. The former wanders into a video store to check out single women with nothing better to do on a Friday night than rent “Titanic.”
They each meet Lauren (Reese Witherspoon) on the same night using their different methods. Egged on by her married pal Tish (rude t.v. talk show host Chelsea Handler), Lauren begins dating both of the men. F and T realize they are each seeing her and agree to not tell her they know each other and to make their romances into a sort of competition.
They each use their spy equipment and underlings to snoop on Lauren, wiretapping her conversations about their comparative advantages and disadvantages. F has small hands, apparently an indication of a small masculine organ. T is British. ‘Nuff said. As each man warms to Lauren and tries to win her, they each act to stop the other from having sex with her—F by turning on fire sprinklers at a key time and T by hitting his pal in the neck with a tranquilizing dart.
So the agents are getting madder and madder at each other—the movie is lousy at showing momentum developing—and then they get word that Heinrich is going to try to sneak back into the U.S. and they set off to have a couple of brief action adventures associated with that sub-plot. The two stories are ended at the same moment.
Not that viewers will really care. “This Means War” was made with a good cast and with lots and lots of money. The scenes are many and they look great. The stunts required preparation. But the characters are only what the script will allow them to be. It wants them to be witty, but doesn’t give them witty dialog. It wants their relationships to grow and change, but the alterations are announced rather than being prepared, and they always seem abrupt.
Then, too, attractive those these people are, there is no romantic chemistry in this movie. And “This Means War” may assume we know no history, but it can’t assume we know no current events. Making FDR claim to be a cruise ship captain was, given the recent Italian liner’s sinking, an unintentionally comic choice.