|Written by Cas Harlow|
published 7th July 2012
Supplied for review by
He is one of the most underrated directors in the business. Forget Scorsese, Nolan, Michael Mann, Nicholas Winding Refn. There are simply no directors – old veterans or new talent – that can do what he does. He can turn an art form into an advert for hair products; he can turn a music video into a feature length movie; and he can make the longest montages known to mankind. He’s one of those rare directors who can terminate a blockbuster sci-fi franchise dead in its tracks; who can make watching gorgeous women wander around in swimsuits in slo-mo a tawdry affair; who can take a big budget romantic comedy actioner with a promising cast and deliver a tiresome film which has no romance or chemistry, no genuine humour and almost no decent action. Meet Joseph McGinty Nichol. Also known as McG.
“FDR” Foster and Tuck Hansen are best friends and top CIA agents. Some might call them super-agents. The two of them manage to gun down over half a dozen armed assailants and take out a fleeing helicopter, unfortunately letting their target – an arms dealer – get away, just seconds after he sees his brother die in the assault. This allows a trifecta of events to take place: firstly, their boss gets to chew them out for messing up the mission so terribly ‘wrong’, and then bench them despite the fact that they are clearly her two best agents; this therefore allows them the opportunity to get bored by their desk work and promptly spend an insane amount of Company resources trying to sabotage and one-up one another in an effort to win the affections of the same girl; and this – eventually, after an hour and a half of montage – gives the feeble villain established in the prologue a suitable target with which he can leverage the attention of both of the men that he wants to pay back for the death of his brother.
If you’ve seen the trailer to This Means War (formerly titled Spy vs. Spy but changed at the last minute to the obscure but marginally better Marx Brothers reference) then you’ve seen the movie. Yes, yes, I know you probably hear that a great deal, but, in this case, it is literally true. This Means War is less an expanded version of the scenes from its own trailer – which is, essentially, a half a dozen scenes from the movie sown together – and instead just more of the same: rather than half a dozen scenes, we get about fifty scenes, each little more than the length that was seen in the trailer, packing out half of the runtime of this surprisingly (and not in a good way) long film.
Honestly, it’s got more montages than any other film I’ve ever seen – even in movies like Team America which are mocking the use of montages – and the largest collection of the shortest scenes that I’ve ever seen. It’s like the production company were not only trying to cater for a whole generation of ADD moviegoers, but they actually had their own attention deficit problems themselves. “Action! ... Right, we just hit twenty-two seconds. Cut! That’s a wrap for today.”
There were plenty of warning signs to just how bad this production was going to be, but there were still plenty of reasons to ignore those signs. The cast originally included the likes of Bradley Cooper, Sam Worthington and Seth Rogen and you have to wonder just how bad a script has to be for the actors who did The Hangover Part II, Clash of the Titans and The Green Hornet, respectively, to pass on it. It’s easy to understand why audiences didn’t pay heed to this fact – they were too distracted by the replacements; two of the biggest upcoming stars in the business: Chris Pine and Tom Hardy.
Chris Pine has made William Shatner’s Kirk cool again for the first time in a decade; he’s also been tipped to take on the role of Jack Ryan in the long-gestating reboot of the Tom Clancy franchise. Tom Hardy has demanded our attention through a series of diverse and almost universally acclaimed performances in everything from Bronson to Inception; Warrior to Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy; and plays Batman’s ultimate nemesis, Bane, in the conclusion to Nolan’s trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises. He’s also been cast as Mel Gibson’s replacement in the long-gestating reboot/sequel fourth Mad Max film.
Why would you not expect great things from these two next generation stars? Indeed, against all odds, they remain arguably the only halfway-decent element in the entire production and, even though they feel incapacitated and impotent as a result of the script and McG’s MTV-style direction (or lack thereof), their innate charisma and sheer presence simply cannot be drowned out in the maelstrom. But what on earth were they doing picking this turkey to star in? I can honestly think it was only the promise of starring opposite each other (Hardy getting some screen-time opposite a leading blockbuster actor, whilst Pine gets to pit himself against a more heavyweight upcomer) that drew them to this project.
It certainly couldn’t have been Reese Witherspoon. In 2010 Reese Witherspoon was in the Top 10 Highest Paid Actresses as compiled by Forbes. She commanded salaries averaging $15 Million per movie, generally being paid more than the actors that she co-starred with. Whilst her greatest critical acclaim may have come from her Oscar-winning role in the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line, opposite Joaquim Phoenix, she is still fondly remembered for her innocence in Cruel Intentions and her earnestness in Legally Blonde. Indeed, you can see why Hollywood had such high hopes from her in 2010 in what was effectively an attempted semi-comeback following a 2-year hiatus from movies.
Unfortunately she chose to star in not one but three ‘love triangle’ movies where she was the focus of attention between two male co-stars. At best, this was misguidedly optimistic. At worst, this was a terrible idea doomed to failure. It’s hard enough overcoming the fact that she is simply not conventionally beautiful – which could have worked out with Paul Rudd and Owen Wilson (How Do You Know) but which is, frankly, incomprehensible when the men fighting over her are played by Tom Hardy and Chris Pine – but it is simply impossible to get around the sheer lack of chemistry that she has had with any of her co-stars of late. Whether it’s Rudd and Wilson (who, along with Jack Nicholson – shamefully making this his last performance to date – were utterly wasted in How Do You Know, one of the most expensive prize turkeys in recent Hollywood history), or Inglourious Basterds’s Christopher Waltz and Twilight’s emo posterboy Robert Pattinson (in Water For Elephants) or here, with Pine and Hardy, Reese Witherspoon hasn’t had even the slightest spark of chemistry for almost a decade.
You can’t see why Pine and Hardy’s characters would be attracted to her in the first place and, worse still, you can’t see why they would be endeared by her character’s personality even beyond the lack of that first blush. It’s not wholly Witherspoon’s fault, as she’s clearly had on-screen chemistry with other male co-stars in the past – from her real-life ex-husband Ryan Phillippe on Cruel Intentions, to her Sweet Home Alabama (another love triangle film) co-star Josh Lucas – it’s just that she hasn’t had any with any of her recent co-stars, and it’s a fairly important element when you’re repeatedly playing a girl caught between two guys who are fighting for you; perhaps even more so than just in a normal rom-com.
Support for the central trio comes from the likes of a woefully underused Angela Bassett (who gets about 20 seconds of screen time) as the CIA boss, Inglourious Basterds’s Til Schweiger as the utterly generic arms dealer villain, and Abigail “Mad Men, Cowboys & Aliens” Spencer (whose pretty looks are devalued by what seems to be unnecessary plastic surgery) as Tucker’s ex-wife. They all do their jobs, adding little, but not really taking away from the proceedings either. Unfortunately the same can’t be said for Chelsea Handler, who plays Witherspoon’s character’s best friend. Handler is a stand-up comic, writer and talk show host. She’s not, however, an actress. Her painfully loud delivery of lines here, at once monotone and yet deafeningly attention-seeking in volume (perhaps it’s her New Jawsey / New Yawk thang?), gives her intentionally blunt character (if you can call it that) much more reason to be hated than liked, and she robs her lines of any possible amusement value.
When all is said and done, however, the blame should really all lay on the shoulders of McG. If you were being unconventionally and unjustifiably nice to the guy then you could argue that his hands were tied on this production; that after the lacklustre results of Terminator: Salvation, the Studios did not want to leave anything to chance; that the writers – who were the men behind Knight and Day and Mr & Mrs Smith (both of which I enjoyed) – basically decided to just blend the ideas from these previous, more successful, romantic action-comedies together (a fighting spy couple, and a girl who falls in love with a guy who turns out to be a spy) and see if anything stuck; or that the film suffered at the hands of Studio interference and test screenings that led to evident rewrites and reshoots of major components – but, quite honestly, it was up to him to prove himself after Salvation; to redeem his career. What did he do instead? An extended music video montage which proves nothing more than the fact that he can deliver a romantic action-comedy which has lacklustre action, little romance, and even less comedy.
This Means War probably should not be dismissed as a terrible film, more a resoundingly mediocre one. If we were in the business of championing the mediocre, then it would be getting a positive review, but when there are still plenty of decent directors and decent ideas out there, we really shouldn’t have to settle for this. It’s nothing more than a 99-minute trailer, with awful production values that make you wonder whether it even went through post (the whole thing looks like it was shot against a green-screen, which isn’t helped by the fact that McG’s ‘style’ is to shoot everything in the background hazily out of focus), a tired and tested plot, a painfully episodic nature, insipid characterisations, a wasted cast, not a single laugh-out-loud moment, and barely a couple of minutes of vaguely entertaining action. It’s not quite a waste of your time – i.e. it’s not going to make you angry because it’s so damn wrong – it’s more like a good bit of background noise to have playing whilst you do something more interesting like Sudoku or a crossword. In fact your best bet is probably to just watch the trailer and let your imagination fill in the gaps. Better that than McG’s imagination...
Theatrical Cut vs. Extended Cut
Many movies benefit from being revisited by their directors, who may have had to rush out a first cut – possibly to cater for censorship restrictions – and, with the advantage of hindsight, might be able to give audiences a longer cut somewhere down the line. Whether it’s classics like Blade Runner or Manhunter, or newer efforts, from Avatar to Salt; from Limitless to Fast & Furious 5 (fingers crossed for Prometheus), Blu-ray generally affords filmmakers the opportunity to present two or more different versions of a film. Most are improved, but even those that aren’t are still bettered by offering up an alternate version for fans to enjoy.
There are two relatively recent movies which I have to say worked much better in their Extended Cut format, in spite of being utterly slated on Theatrical Release – Sucker Punch, and Knight and Day. Knight and Day and Mr & Mrs Smith (which also had an Unrated Extended Cut) were written by the guys who came up with This Means War so there was every hope that, despite its Theatrical issues, an Extended Edition might redeem it somewhat; change the pacing; add more action and humour, and basically mix things up a little.
Unfortunately the majority of the good – or at least different – material which didn’t make the Theatrical Cut of This Means War was not reinstated for the Extended Version, and instead remains present merely as extras on the disc: three alternate endings, one of which is completely different; and a number of deleted scenes, a couple of which were actually quite funny – at least on paper. That’s not to mention the significantly more spectacular alternate opening, which was never shot, but which can be seen in concept form (using the Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol Burj setting to great effect). What we’re left with on the actual Extended Cut is a version that’s 6 minutes longer but has almost nothing of interest added back into it.
Firstly, the opening scene has been revamped and made even more Bondian, complete with freeze-frame introductions to the cast and subsequent Maurice Binder-style titles. A cosmetic change, it remains the only modification that can be seen as even vaguely improving the feature. Then there’s a minute-long dialogue sequence where FDR de-invites Tuck to his family gathering, which, whilst a nice little character beat, is never really developed in the story; and then there’s the biggest – and perhaps worst – addition, an entire sub-plot involving Tom Hardy’s character hiring a group of actors to play his family members. This backfires when FDR sabotages the plan, but the ensuing scene is painfully unpleasant to watch; crude and in bad taste, even within this movie’s particular realm. And that’s it.
I’m assuming that the various possible endings were shot to show to test audiences, but they would have clearly both added to the theatrical cut and also allowed very different alternate outcomes – one of the endings would have made more sense for the characters; and one would have not only been funnier, but also probably been the most appropriate ending; and the added earlier action would have been welcome. Unfortunately what we get instead is an extended cut in name only, which rather than being an improved version of the film, is actually even worse.
If you’ve made it this far then you should now be aware that the simple fact that this edition contains an extended version of the film does not change the quality of the content. If anything, it’s a last ditch attempt at trying to pull in those who were disappointed by the theatrical cut and were tempted to presume that the extended cut might rectify it. There are cases, as shown above, where an extended cut can help, and even save a movie. In this case, it’s just a bluff, and, if anything, it only further highlights the fact that the movie has been irredeemably damaged by an untalented director who himself has been handicapped by an uncertain film studio that simply cannot decide how to fix the film. Unfortunately no amount of test audience feedback can help some movies – getting a decent director in the first place was the only hope that this project had, hope that was lost a long time ago around about the time that McG signed on the dotted line.
Movie score : 4
3,193 word review written by Cas Harlow.
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