By Michael Phillips 2013-01-18

By Michael Phillips

Tribune Newspapers Critic

1 star

In "This Means War," the CIA operatives played by Chris Pine and Tom Hardy fall for the same woman, a consumer products tester played by Reese Witherspoon. At first the boys agree to let the best agent win, seduction-wise, while Witherspoon's Lauren puzzles through her feelings regarding her suitors, whom she believes to be a cruise ship captain and a travel agent, respectively.

Then the lads' alpha male surveillance instincts get the better of them, and a sour premise becomes a pretty ugly state of affairs. Double-entendres about "entering the premises" litter the script.

The fellows take turns foiling each other's sexual progress in increasingly elaborate and James Bondian ways, at immense expense to the American taxpayer. Their voyeuristic one-upmanship isn't amusing. It's more like none-upmanship. Occasionally the film lurches back to its B plot line, involving an international arms dealer (Til Schweiger, Sgt. Stiglitz of "Inglourious Basterds"). The bulk of the film, the A plot, rates an F.

Thanks to the success seven years ago of "Mr. & Mrs. Smith," starring Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie and written by "This Means War" co-writer Simon Kinberg, we've endured quite a few terrible "Smith" knockoffs in which assassins' bullets fly while verbal bullets go squib-squib-squib all over the place.

The ideal audience for "This Means War" is anybody who enjoyed "Knight and Day" (the one with Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz) and "Killers" (Ashton Kutcher and Katherine Heigl). In the film press materials, Witherspoon had this to say regarding her latest: "It's almost like two different movies. My character's in a comedy and Chris' and Tom's are in a big action film." Yes, and they're both lame.

Am I alone in resisting this subgenre of adorable assassins and their complicated love lives? Entertainments blending spiky comic repartee and outsize physical action (plus a formidable body count) tended to go down more easily in the Cold War days, when Alfred Hitchcock's "North by Northwest" served as a prelude to the Bond franchise, and a diversion such as Stanley Donen's "Charade" could disarm moviegoers who had come for Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn and, as such, found themselves pleasantly discombobulated by all the killings.

"This Means War" is pure, witless discombobulation. The director is McG, of the "Charlie's Angels" franchise and "We Are Marshall." (He should shorten that handle of his, either to "Mc" or just plain "G.") He choreographs and frames the action here in such a way as to be spatially incoherent -- as in the Hong Kong-set prelude -- or tonally berserk -- as in a later, massively destructive clash between the male leads. In the Tom Arnold "True Lies" supporting slot, Chelsea Handler (as Lauren's kibitzing married friend, Trish) offers smutty wisecracks a-plenty, if not a-funny, enough to risk the PG-13 rating; it took two appeals, in fact, to rate the film down from an R.

The superbright color palette is designed for high spirits, but the behavior of the alleged rooting interests is repellent, especially Pine's smug Lothario. Repartee does not come easily to the hugely talented Hardy, who always seems on the verge of a bloodbath.

And note to Witherspoon: "This Means War" is the sort of consumer product you're supposed to test before you win an Academy Award, not after.

MPAA rating: PG-13 (for some sexual content including references, some violence and action, and for language).

Running time: 1:36.

Cast: Reese Witherspoon (Lauren); Chris Pine (FDR Foster); Tom Hardy (Tuck), Chelsea Handler (Trish).

Credits: Directed by McG; written by Timothy Dowling and Simon Kinberg; produced by Robert Simonds, James Lassiter, Will Smith and Simon Kinberg. A 20th Century Fox release.

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