'This Means War' Is Built to Exasperate

by Cynthia Fuchs

17 February 2012

Angela Basset's role as Collins raises all kinds of questions, not least being McG's own self-image as a Hollywood player committed to "diversity" casting.

In the Spirit of Benetton

cover art

This Means War

Director: McG
Cast: Reese Witherspoon, Chris Pine, Tom Hardy, Til Schweiger, Chelsea Handler

(20th Century Fox)
US theatrical: 17 Feb 2012 (General release)
UK theatrical: 2 Mar 2012 (General release)

In the spirit of Benetton [Rainbow Complex], you know, the most empowered character in the film is indeed a black woman. I enjoy that the most powerful person in Hollywood is indeed a black woman—Oprah Winfrey. And I’m hoping to just transcend beyond that.

“The best product always wins,” asserts Lauren (Reese Witherspoon). She’s a product tester, which means she either knows what she’s talking about or she’s surrendered to the job’s self-justification. You might guess which as soon as you see the test she must perform for This Means War, that is, a test between two suitors, a pair of more or less matching romantic comedy leads named FDR (Chris Pine) and Tuck (Tom Hardy).

The gimmick for this film, directed by McG with his signature indelicacy, is that both of these products work for the same spy agency. Indeed, they start out as partners in this domain, where they infiltrate fancy-dress parties, drive expensive tricked-out cars, and wield super-cool video-gamey sorts of weapons, admiring one another’s skills and declaring their loyalty unto death, under a smackdown too-obvious soundtrack that includes the Beasties’ “Sabotage” and the Heavy’s “How You Like Me Now.” They also have access to the absolute latest in surveillance technology, which means that as they compete, they spy on each other—a lot.

This means that as they fret over who will have sex with Lauren first, they’re also wondering how they’ll look on camera (this despite their “gentlemen’s agreement” that they won’t try to have sex with her at all). And oh yes, they’re also spying on Lauren, to learn whom she’s preferring at any given moment. (And when the inevitable question arises over whether their invasions of her privacy are legal, they come back with the inevitable one-phrase joke, “Patriot Act.”)

Conveniently, Lauren makes her decision-making process clear, mostly in conversations with her best friend Trish. The fact that Trish is played by Chelsea Handler means the film packs a teeny bit of punch, reshaping Handler’s lately outrageousness so it fits into a PG-13 package. (Thus Trish occasions jokes about sex with a fat husband who likes eating Cheetos during sex.) But for the most part, she plays the best friend as such, urging Lauren to conduct the test (when the nice girl says she feels “weird about dating two guys,” Trish asserts the moral imperative: “You think Gloria Steinem got arrested and sat in a jail so you could act like a little bitch?”) and then aiding in the evaluations.

Neither Lauren nor Trish can know that these evaluations are based on incomplete information, as FDR and Tuck neglect to tell Lauren that they know each other. So, while she compares that FDR likes loud, neony nightclubs and Tuck likes local amusement parks, she can’t anticipate—as you must—that she’ll eventually discover their deceit and still (don’t do it!) pick one. This after, of course, the big chase scene, involving a villainy villain, Heinrich (Til Schweiger), and lots of speedy vehicles and advanced gadgetry.

It’s no surprise that Lauren’s pronouncement on which product is best makes little sense story-wise and leaves you feeling dissatisfied to boot. The film is built to exasperate, and works that nerve pretty much nonstop. Granted, the formula needs Lauren to be slow and the boys to be juvenile. This last is underscored by the scenes including their boss-mother, Collins (Angela Bassett). Most of the time, FDR and Tuck seem to be on their own, actionating in the field or whiling away their downtime at headquarters, where they pronounce their mutual manly affection (“I’d take a bullet for you, you’d take a bullet for me”) or bicker over who’s using what camera where.

But when Collins shows up, they’re called on to behave like spies—perhaps no more mature than they might be as competitive lovers, but at least understanding consequences. Collins walks through their shared office space a few times, inspiring them to take their feet off their desks or sit up straight, and even to come up with plans to save the free world from Heinrich’s efforts to own it.

Their plans are consistently stupid and Heinrich is easy enough to trounce, but Collins raises all kinds of questions, not least being McG’s own self-image as a Hollywood player committed to “diversity” casting. Bassett has been consigned to this part before, in Green Lantern and in TV’s Alias, and she does bring weight to the boss-mother figure and you know she was paid. But considered in any sort of big picture, Collins is not “the most empowered character in the film” and Angela Bassett scolding boy-men-products is not any sort of progress.

This Means War


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