Home Video Hovel- This Means War, by Scott Nye
If This Means War were a better movie, it’d be an incisive bit of mainstream social satire. As it is, it’s merely clever. McG’s latest film tells the tale of two CIA agents, FDR (Chris Pine) and Tuck (Tom Hardy), who fall separately for the same girl, consumer product tester Lauren (Reese Witherspoon). Lauren is the typical protagonist of modern romantic comedies – she excels at her job, but despite being beautiful and charming just can’t seem to get the right guy. Her last right guy, with whom she moved to Los Angeles, cheated on her, and judging by their frequent encounters throughout the sprawling City of Angels, seems to still carry something resembling a torch for her, but that’s another matter. The point is that this once-unlucky-in-love gal is now positively overwhelmed by two very attractive, personable men of means. What’s a girl to do?
Lauren’s response, upon the advice of her best friend, Trish (an infuriating Chelsea Handler), is to play it out and see which one sticks, which actually isn’t bad advice as far as it goes given how things develop, but it naturally makes for all kinds of hijinks. This is compounded when the boys learn that the girls they’re each crazy about are actually the same girl, and proceed to bring to bear the full power of the CIA to not only learn everything they can about Lauren, but track her movements and listen in on her conversations, particularly when they pertain to them.
I know that sounds, frankly, stupid, but knowingly or not, I’d actually insist that McG and his screenwriters (Timothy Dowling and Simon Kinberg, from a story by Dowling and Marcus Gautesen), whether knowingly or not, hit upon a jackpot of an idea that uses modern genre conventions to get at something inherent to contemporary social relations – the Internet. After all, what are FDR and Tuck’s tactics if not an enhanced, more cinematically-friendly version of what many people do on Facebook? Their actions are not so different from the jealous lovers compulsively looking at where and when their companions have checked in to various places, who they were with, and just how late into the night these activities went. And just who was that guy in so many of her photos?
Obviously This Means War doesn’t make such direct connections, but the impulses at its core, and the proliferation of technology, makes this a very timely look at romantic relations. Dowling and Kinberg wisely keep things fast and light, not dwelling for too long on the inherent creepiness of FDR and Tuck’s plan in a manner not uncommon with how all manner of brazen behaviors were glossed over in the golden age of the studio era. McG, for his part, continues to prove a better director of dialogue than of action, displaying an almost inherent knowledge of how to frame, cut, and move the camera, though he still isn’t much of a storyteller. There’s a long tracking shot following FDR and Tuck as they plant various surveillance devices around Lauren’s apartment while she is mere feet away making dinner that is technically and choreographically brilliant, but which ends casually rather than decisively. McG’s heart was in the right place, but he just couldn’t tell the whole story of that scene, a problem that nags at the film as a whole.
More than anything, though, McG just has a problem with tone. He excels at the fun, brisk, pop energy that made his Charlie’s Angels a surprisingly enjoyable experience, but any scene that calls for something else feels dreadfully out of place. Moreover, the genre conventions that allow some pointed social commentary also make it really easy for Dowling and Kinberg to drum up a faceless threat for the boys to work together to defeat, thus saving the friendship that love had destroyed. Aw. The problem is, it just ends up being a little sloppy, a little simplistic, and Lauren’s ultimate decision between the two men seems to more or less come down to the way some people settle the ownership of a dog. And while hoping for some kind of Design For Living-esque resolution may be a bit unwarranted, the inevitability of a monogamous, heteronormative ending just goes to show that for all of Chelsea Handler’s dirty talk, sexual politics in mainstream cinema have in many ways regressed since the heyday of Lubitsch.
Presented in its theatrical aspect ratio of 2.39:1, This Means War looks good, but not great, on Blu-ray. Given current production practices, I imagine what we see on this disc is a compressed (and not terribly well compressed, at that), but otherwise true representation of what McG and company were looking at when they declared the cut final, and if that’s the case, I’d say they spent a week too long with the digital intermediate. More than anything, the contrast looks like it was boosted a little too far, blowing out some colors and skin tones. Had they worked to accomplish this a little more in-camera (and they shot on film, so they could have if desired) instead of in post-production, they might have achieved the dynamic look they were going for. Instead, the whole affair looks a tad blotchy. It’s not awful, but it gives modern cinematography a bad rap.
The Blu-ray also comes with a number of special features, as these things go. Most prominently is the “extended cut,” which runs an extra six minutes and might be fun and all, but I didn’t see for myself, so that’s on you, dear reader. The biggest special feature is a commentary by McG, who, say what you will about his direction, is pretty honest and forthright on these tracks. He does what any good manager does, taking the blame for the things that fall flat and giving credit for all the things that work. And, yes, he does admit that some stuff in the movie didn’t work out like he’d envisioned. He doesn’t always seem to know how to make them better, but at least this isn’t another in the long line of fluff commentaries. It’s production-centered, naturally, but most of the stuff he highlights is actually of interest, instead of the usual “this was just a blast.”
Next up are three alternate endings, which, given the nature of the which-guy-do-I-go-with stakes, invites all kinds of exciting possibilities that are never delivered. One just provides a different means to get them to the final, explosive climax, another has Lauren end up with the other guy (no spoilers here, kids!), and the final just seems to be a goof in which Lauren is left alone while FDR and Tuck hold each other. They’re presented in varying degrees of quality, with the “warehouse ending” faring by far the worse; not good even by SD standards.
We also get a collection of deleted scenes, which meet the usual criteria for being cut from the picture and thus not warranting much consideration. A gag reel is also provided in case you want to see people laughing about screwing up at work.
Inexplicably sorted separately from the deleted scenes is an extended bit showing Lauren’s bachelorette party. It’s impossible to imagine it really fitting within the flow of the film, so maybe they just shot it for the Blu-ray, but regardless of context, it’s…not good.
And finally, the rare bit of hard production material is an alternate opening previz (and storyboard) with optional commentary by McG. That last bit is very helpful for explaining just what it is you’re looking at, which is an elaborate concept for a single-take (albeit CGI-assisted) shot lasting two-and-a-half minutes. It’s a hell of an idea, and would’ve made for a lot more dynamic scene, better establishing FDR and Tuck as a team than the iffy opening they ended up with. But, as McG says several times over the course of the disc, production concerns sometimes get in the way, and this would have undoubtedly been a much, much more expensive set piece.
On the whole, I liked This Means War more than I thought I would, but its interesting modernization of classical romantic comedy tropes weren’t quite enough to keep it afloat in any total sense. It’s also burdened by a really lame action undercurrent that only kicks up long enough to establish the world, and then force the characters back together when more difficult screenwriting wouldn’t prevail. The disc is fairly robust, with McG’s surprisingly forthright commentary being the truly great, pervasive feature. Can’t say you wouldn’t be better off spending the night with several other movies (and a little riff about Hitchcock and The Lady Vanishes provides several examples in the middle of the picture), but you could also do a whole lot worse.