In the Sixties, Mad Magazine debuted a Cold War version of the Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner cartoons, but with a pair of coyotes. “Spy vs. Spy” featured one spy in white and the other, identically dressed, in black. Drawn by Antonio Prohías, they were mildly amusing but utterly predictable. These guys went at each other with the unemotional regularity of any working stiff punching a time clock—a couple of boobs setting booby traps for each other.
I thought of “Spy vs. Spy” as I watched this latest action comedy from director McG, who was responsible for “Charlie’s Angels,” “Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle,” and the pilot of the TV spy series “Chuck.” “This Means War” has the same “it’s a job” feel to it and the same simplicity as Prohías comics.
Think “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” without the chemistry and one-liners, or “Date Night” without the domino plot that’s full of manic energy, or “Knight and Day” without the high contrast between characters. Or “Spy vs. Spy” without the nearly as many booby traps.
In “This Means War,” Reese Witherspoon almost feels extraneous as Lauren, a chief product tester and focus-group leader. Once the premise is introduced—that two best buds working as undercover CIA types show each other a picture of the woman they’re interested in, and it turns out to be the same woman—what we get is a tired version of “Spy vs. Spy,” in which they engage others in the agency to help them spy on each other. How tame is it? I expected all sorts of humorous traps and setbacks that they could do to each other, but that door stayed closed. Instead, FDR (Chris Pine) and Tuck (Tom Hardy) are mostly preoccupied with surveillance, making sure that the other guy doesn’t violate the agreement not to sleep with Lauren until she’s made her choice. Will she go for the ladies’ man who tried to pick her up in a bar, or the shy guy with an ex-wife and kid who wouldn’t know what to do with a date if it was wrapped in bacon.
The only person who shows much passion in this film is Chelsea Handler as the obligatory “you need to get laid” sidekick to Lauren—and she’s so wooden that it feels as if she’s reading her lines half the time. Then too, for a woman who hasn’t had a real date since high school, how believable is it for Lauren to quickly agree and jump into the online dating pool, while also wading into the bar scene? Then, to date both of them at the same time, and kiss and (ahem) both of them? It just seems out-of-character, though we really don’t get to know any of these “types” too well. Everything feels just a little shallow, like those waterways you ride along on theme park attractions. And that’s kind of how “This Means War” feels.
After a fantastic opening action sequence of the guys on a mission, it’s pretty much downhill in terms of energy or excitement. That’s too bad, because production designer Martin Laing comes up with a slick- and believable-looking world. Unfortunately, the people who inhabit it aren’t interesting enough. The result is an action comedy that’s much blander than you’d expect when you see these stars’ names on the marquee.
The high-tech sets look fantastic in HD, but many of the exterior scenes and shots with busy backgrounds have a heavy layer of filmic grain. But medium shots and close-ups show the kind of detail you’d expect from a newer film on Blu-ray, and that level of detail sustains the film. Skin tones look a little spray-tanned to me (but these days, so does most of Hollywood), but other colors are natural-looking and pleasingly saturated. “This Means War” was transferred to a 50GB disc using the AVC/MPEG-4 codec, presented in 2.40:1 aspect ratio. It’s a region-free release.
The featured audio is an English DTS-HD MA 5.1 that offers a lively soundtrack, especially during gunfights, explosions, and the action in the film. The rear speakers get a lot to do, even in slower scenes. I wouldn’t call it an enveloping or dynamic soundtrack—it stops just short of that—but it’s a stronger presentation than the video. Additional audio options are Spanish, French, and English Descriptive Dolby Digital 5.1, with subtitles in English SDH and Spanish.
Two cuts of the film are included: a theatrical cut and an extended cut. I usually begin with the theatrical cut and then watch the extended version, but with this one, I’ll confess, I didn’t have it in me to go through it again. So I don’t know how many minutes are added to the 97-minute theatrical version in the longer cut. A Digital Copy is also included.
As for packaged bonus features, I noticed that McG provides a commentary for the extended version only. Apart from that, there really isn’t much. Three alternate endings run seven minutes long, an alternate opening runs nine minutes, and six deleted/extended scenes run 16 minutes. Other than that, there’s another deleted scene pretending to be something else (“Bachelorette Party” runs just four minutes long) and a four-minute gag reel.
There’s not enough going on in “This Means War” to inspire repeat play, but for a single night of movie-watching it’s innocuous-enough light entertainment. Still, it won’t take you long to notice that there are better action comedies out there.