Reese Witherspoon, Chris Pine, Tom Hardy, Chelsea Handler, Til Schweiger and Angela Bassett.
Daring CIA operatives Tuck and Frankie have opted for perhaps their most challenging mission yet: getting a date.
No, really. Both our spies are getting burnout from all this “making the world safe for democracy” stuff. They ain’t getting any younger, nor is the planet getting any less dangerous. It’s high time to settle down, preferably with a nice girl.
Too bad the suck with women. Tuck’s a divorcee and FDR’s just a player. What they both need is a grounded, no-nonsense kind of woman. Someone cosmopolitan but also independent, free-thinking…and easy to dupe.
It won’t be a contest, but rather a “gentleman’s agreement.”
What begins with 007 ends up with continental philosophy.
I love spy movies. Okay, check that. I love James Bond films, ever since I was a kid. I may have mentioned this before; I tend to repeat myself a lot here at RIORI (did I mention I tend to repeat myself here?) back in the day the local NBC affiliate would run a Bond film every Wednesday evening in July when I was a pup. Guess what I was up to every Wednesday night at 8 PM? Right, making microwave popcorn after hiding the remote from my Dad. Priorities, right?
Bond films are wish fulfillment incarnate for a teenaged male. Think about it. We have action, intrigue, exotic locales, cool cars, even cooler gadgets courtesy of Q, beautiful women, and if they became a liability Bond had a license to kill. Kidding, not kidding. I know a few married guys who’d love to have that license, if only to be left alone to find that lost remote. And seriously whenever Bond waltzed into a casino, a posh hotel, a swank bar and said who he was—bam—gorgeous woman oozed out of the ether, fawning all over him. I always wished I was his wingman, but I would’ve probably been poisoned by that Ukrainian supermodel before the end of the first act. Would’ve been worth it.
Consider this: over the franchise’s 50 year history, James Bond has created, influenced, parodied and informed every modern spy caper to this day that has ever been committed to film. It helps that no one actor portrayed Bond. A cult of personalities have informed the character based on the cinematic climate of the time. The zeitgeist. Every iteration of James Bond reflected in cinema as, well, what a super spy should perform. We had the original, Sean Connery, the cool Bond. Fast forward to Roger Moore, the funny Bond. The one-off George Lazenby, the Aussie Bond. Timothy Dalton, the angry Bond. The belated Pierce Brosnan, the thinking man’s Bond. And of recent Daniel Craig, the tough Bond. This MI:6 cornucopia characters reflected the pop culture at the time, and like Superman Bond could be reinterpreted to fit the bill.
So when we’re talking about spy thrillers, I both thank and leer a crooked eye at the 007 movies. Considering that the 007 movies are the gold and silver standards for every spy movie, be it the comedic True Lies, the terse Jason Bourne series (both with Chamberlain and Damon), or the endless stunt-fest/threadbare plot Mission: Impossible movies. In sum, the spy thriller genre is fractured, not unlike the many Bonds that embodied the vox populi and their expectations of what a spy thriller “should be.”
So what should a spy thriller be for the 21st Century? Simple.
Deconstructionist. Question everything you know about spy capers, their tropes and then lay it all bare for the curious. Subvert the expectations and damn the torpedos.
In the academic sense, deconstruction is philosophical and critical movement, starting in the 1960s and especially applied to the study of literature, that questions all traditional assumptions about the ability of language to represent reality and emphasizes that a text has no stable reference or identification because words essentially only refer to other words and therefore a reader must approach a text by eliminating any metaphysical or ethnocentric assumptions through an active role of defining meaning, sometimes by a reliance on new word construction, etymology, puns, and other word play.
The above definition was courtesy of Dictionary.com so don’t play tl;dr because that wasn’t me talking, though I get it. In our case, dismantle all we know and understand about an accepted, popular tenets in popular movies and turn it all on its proverbial ear. Shake some fresh life into a well-worn out warhorse. Kind of like when Led Zeppelin reunited in the 90s and deliberately left “Stairway To Heaven” off the set list. Instead Robert, Jimmy et al incorporated traditional British folk instruments into some deep tracks thereby creating a new twist on their trademark heaviosity, with fiddles, mandolin and bohdran (a traditional Celtic drum for the curious). I didn’t even knew what a hurdy-gurdy was until I saw a live feed on cable, but it sounded cool.
Where to start with deconstructing spy movies? For lack of a proper film let’s claim James Cameron’s True Lies as fountainhead. Well, it was based on a foreign film, but had the neat package of American sensibilities and Cameron’s way of yanking his audience as sutra. That and Arnie in his comedic prime didn’t hurt neither. For those unfamiliar with this choice slice of popcorn fodder, Schwarzenegger plays Harry: humble computer sales rep by day, moonlighting as a super spy unbeknownst to his family. The movie is riddled with the usual whiz-bang of Cameron’s best actioners, but with a twist. Cameron is not known for hijinks. Sure, a good chunk of his oeuvre is dappled with one-liners and wisecracks (his Aliens was littered with ’em), but being outright funny? Nope.
This is a serious reason why True Lies worked, in spite of being not very original. Remake, remember? The spy on the sly thing has been done before, and often better than True Lies (think North By Northwest or the Kingsman movies), but the injection of humor—including pratfalls and slapstick, before God—was not, not something you’d get out of a Cameron spy adventure with a star he’d worked with prior that also included pants-wetting gags. True Lies was funny in spite of itself being a action/adventure encompassing all those espionage goodies I mentioned as de rigeur for James Bond. And the “funny Bond” Moore mostly just quipped, winked and nudged. Quite well I felt, but I was 12 so don’t invest too much in that.
When you put the tub of half-eaten, stale popcorn down and ruminate over your viewing of True Lies (which, in reality, you didn’t), you might, might’ve asked yourself “Wait. What did I just watch?” The Roger Moore era Bond was labelled as the funny one, but just our protagonist being a smartarse does not a spy comedy make. David Niven did a better job with the original Casino Royale. As with True Lies, one of the more terse scenes is when Jamie Lee Curtis looses control of an Uzi and Wile E Coyote-like offs the terrorists at the ready to kill Arnie. It’s physical comedy in a slanted way, a very Cameron way, and what the hell did we just watch? And why are we laughing?
What I’m getting at is entertainment skewed informs the basal needs of the average moviegoer. Cognitive dissonance. All you are left to do is laugh. Dr No this wasn’t, and all the better for it. If True Lies was wellspring, it led to movies like Knight And Day, Killers and—natch—This Means War.
These days it’s okay to have rom-com ideas spice up action movies. In the theater just consider it: the life of a CIA operative/MI5 agent must not be much fun. Constant stress, paperwork, jet lag and always multiple superiors to answer to. That and we still aren’t sure who killed Kennedy. I knew a guy once who was an analyst for the CIA (maybe, might’ve been a cover). What his job required made Alec Baldwin’s character in The Hunt For Red October seem glamourous. In the simplest terms he explained he pissed through 3 highlighters a day. License to kill nowhere to be issued. Like being a cop, what you see on Law And Order is made all dramatic and the bad guys are almost always nabbed within 50 minutes. In reality, being a detective involves tons upon tons of paperwork, phone calls and deadlines. No different for a CIA desk jockey, of which there are legion. It’s not much of a surprise that flicks like This Means War glamorize the glamour that were the early Bond films, rather weeks of desk work. Movies are not supposed to follow real life, duh. Excluding documentaries, movies are supposed to inject fantasy into your humdrum existence. It’s called entertainment. And since I believe that ever since Gen X we’ve seen it all before and demand some deconstructing of the cinematic versions of “Stairway To Heaven.” Just like all prices ending in 99 cents we got it already and you ain’t fooling anyone no more.
Lampoons like This Means War are important movies. Not “important” like Casablanca, Citizen Kane or even Cameron’s Aliens. Important because they subvert expectations of a genre, which provides a lot of the fun in contemporary flicks. Why? Because it’s all uncertain, a surprise and an inside joke all rolled up in a neat package. And picking it all apart—deconstructing it—is the seller. Like I commented with Killers, black comedy does worlds of good to tired plot devices. If you ever seen the likes of Grosse Point Blank, Mr Right or even Clue, for Pete’s sake you know that a little urine with the honey makes a funky fun gut reaction. Usually resulting in inappropriate laughter. With the sort-of-sister-movie Killers black comedy is also an aspect of deconstructionist cinema, if not the forerunner. For further insight, again refer to the installment. Then try to refute me, because I can’t. Not now, sorry. I’m quite tired.
After all that folderol, does This Means War qualify as the seminal, deconstructionist, black, rom-com spy movie?
Uh, I dunno. Nope? Don’t know any others. Time to break it all down…
It happens to us all eventually. Burnout. Your job becomes your life, therefore taking away any life you used to welcome outside of work. Hard work yields good work rewarded with more work. It’s rather a self-fulfilling circle. Work hard to get to the top of the heap and burn lean tissue to stay there, rep and salary intact. You soon have no rep beyond work and spending time in the mere off hours finding new ways to piss away your salary to find escape from the ever-higher responsibilities that said job demands.
In sum, you got the new PlayStation well in advance but have no games, nor any time to play them if you had them. It can be all such a blur, even if you’re not in the private sector. Even if you’re outside the private sector.
Top CIA agents, field partners and BFFs Tuck Hansen and Frank ‘FDR’ Foster (Hardy and Pine respectively) are burnt out, as well as out of the game for a time after botching capture of international criminal Karl Heinrich (Schwieger). That mess resulted in the death of his brother (more on that later). Trapped behind their desks under the scrutiny of their grumpy boss Collins (Bassett), they find quite a bit of time on their hands. All this downtime and then the question comes up: “When was the last time we had date? Just get out for one night with a nice girl?”
Tricky question that. Tuck’s a reluctant divorcee, trying to cover his cover by keeping his ex and kid at a distance for their own safety. FDR’s free and clear of such obligations, but would rather play the field unbecoming a field operative. Read: score as much tail as a cruise ship captain can. Ugh. Both are lonely. Both need a change.
Enter Lauren (Witherspoon), a high profile, woman-made exec with a relationship on the skids. She has no prospects right now—always too busy. Lauren’s very demanding quality control company doesn’t have much quality time going for it. In fact, it’s been guiding her non-life. She needs a change of season also.
By weird happenstance, Tuck, FDR and Lauren’s paths cross. ALL of them need a change from a hazy shade of winter. Tuck and Frank get to thinking about a “gentleman’s agreement” regarding potentially dating Lauren. Heck, it at least it might be a good waste of time, or best finding a decent woman to settle down with. May the best man win!
Later: Heinrich, with malice on his mind wants Tuck and FDR’s blood spilt in revenge for his dead brother.
May the best man win…?
What starts with a jolly take on skewing expectations ends up with stoicism. Stick around.
Like with Killers, I dug This Means War in spite of myself. K has a huge crush on both Chris Pine and Tom Hardy, so naturally she slapped me up the face with the DVD and slapped said disc into the player. I was at her mercy; she hasn’t let me down yet here with RIORI so what could I say? Heck, she tolerated us seeing Villeneuve’s take on Dune, pt 1—all three hours of it—and we both ended up enjoying it (glad I read her a few chapters of the source material to prep her). She prepped me enough about Killers and now This Means War to be in a place to get it, if not enjoy it. Quid pro quo, Clarice.
The goofy premise of War led to some rather goofy hijinks. Here wispy Witherspoon was the heavy, whereas Pine and Hardy were salivating, lunkhead bros. Did 007 drop a jaw at any token Bond girl? Nope. Did the Bond Girl of the moment ever lead 007 around by the nose? Not unless it meant the best for the mission, Ms Moneypenny. In Goldeneye did 007 and 006 engage in a pissing contest? No. Brosnan just dropped Arecibo on Sean Bean’s busted body. Sexy? Yes and no, but overall better than the humdrum of horny spies hell-bent on not busting a nut against one another. Extravaganza incarnate and all around boffo, Biff.
Flip that script. The deconstructionist thing. It worked here with War. Kinda.
To the point, War was ridiculous. There were two movies wedged into one going on. The quirky rom-com met the spy drama rendering many sparks falling to the floor. High suspension of disbelief was required, and once you lightened up you allowed yourself to laugh it became fun. Despite the outset dusky undertones of a trad spy thriller, War ended up a madcap comedy of errors. With a lot of gunplay and collateral damage. Best of both worlds, and amazingly nary a sliver of irony lot be found. Sure, there were a few sops to keep us engaged in the characters (EG: Tuck’s forced divorce, Lauren’s big sis Trish with her endless relationship advice, wine and Cheetos, FDR as the adolescent Bond fanboy akin to what I was back in the day, etc). There has to be some webbing that makes the audience relate to such a motley crew. It was all done tastefully, meaning not ramrod down your gullet. Amazing for potboiler director McG, but the story and characterization unfolded rather then the usual reeling in the line too fast. War, despite its setup required some patience.
I know. I was just as surprised as you.
But firstly, let’s get back to that nonsense about deconstruction theory for a moment. Regarding movies like War, all spy adventures and perhaps the diametric opposite romantic comedy. One of these things is not like the other. Sometimes—more often than not really—I get to waxing philosophical about some of these middling movies. Sometimes it’s fun to overthink fluff like this week’s shindig. I wonder if some weird formula like War had could be an example how certain “misunderstood” movies become cult classics; just waiting around until a potential audience plays catch up (think Rocky Horror, Buckaroo Banzai, and/or anything John Waters ever cut). War had that potential, despite the marketing, the budget and that silly popcorn pleaser director McG at the helm. Which was weird how determinism stuck with a movie like this.
Yes, we are going forward this foundation of philosophy with this Sour Patch Kid pastiche. Why? One, makes for a more interesting critique here (because how many ways can we breakdown a Witherspoon vehicle), and; two, yeah War a twist on a tale as old as time minus the proverbial beast. We’re gonna navel gaze here for the f*ck of it. My blog, my rules. Besides, as of this writing, its Xmas time and I’ve grown numb the froth and Oscar season, okay? A gift to me to indulge. Pass the Chunky Monkey already.
Determinism is rather like the corollary of deconstructionist theory. Determinism claims that all events—freewill included—have sufficient causes. No coincidences, no hidden agendum, no ulterior motive. Facts are facts and choices are choices and all are predominantly planned. The execution of War kinda follows this precept. Meaning we should’ve figured out by the cold open and first act how this movie would end. Awkward and fun, and vice versa. With the order changed, also panem et circenses.
Feeling smart yet? Me neither. Let’s move on.
All that blarney bounced around in my head trying to figure out what had I watched and what did I enjoy it? The flick was not my usual cup of coffee, but I couldn’t ignore War was a fresh spin on the True Lies paradigm with a 21st Century sensibility. Unlike War however, that 90s Arnie blockbuster paired action with comedy evenly and romance as just added flair/subplot C. Again, it was a remake and maybe plagued by stuff getting lost in translation. Despite my adherence to 007’s exploits being the Rosetta Stone for all spy stories until Kingdom come, I never saw such a fluid, inane mashup and nod as I did with War. For shear goofiness it topped True Lies. If the CIA there were middle school, we’d all be at lunch. Gossip, dicking around with a clandestine 3DS and spying the fairer sex to which Mama Nature blessed in an expedient fashion. Read: stretch marks on their foreheads.
In sum—disregarding all those backflips—War was simply dumb fun subverting most expectations. I wouldn’t watch it again, but like sex I enjoyed it while it lasted.
We’re getting all heady here, I know. However we know how much I find the rom-com vehicle as tired as the next never-ending, one-note chapter that is the equivalent of cinematic golden goose that is the MCU, a breath of fresh air is welcome. War was more of a fart than a fresh of breath air, but as far as the spycomrom model goes at least it was different. That and oddly enough a nod to classic espionage movies listed above. Yet still stupid enough to entertain.
One of the main reasons I dug War was its playfulness. A little juvenile at times, yes, but so were our frat house heroes. There was a John Hughes feel, all goofy and winking and waiting for Farmer Ted to pop up and crack wise. In most his of his touchstone hits, Hughes always included some character duality that resulted in a romantic connection, albeit hard won. Think Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club and/or Pretty In Pink (right, the obvious ones). War was ostensibly a spy flick that morphed into a left of center rom-com with the senior year hijinks on naked display dappled with a blurred version of Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes. Something about FDR and Tuck’s “gentleman’s agreement” whiffed of a Hitchcock thriller, at least in an ethereal sense. Not sure why but that felt right.
Despite being a rom-com, War was a guy movie, by guys, for guys like me who don’t dig rom-coms. I dubbed this movie as “cromantic bromance.” A bromcom, if you will. I mean, look at it. Do spy partners really hang out on their few days off? Sure they do, here. Makes sense since Pine and Hardy act more on a sibling rivalry vibe than defending freedom. And all over a stuffy Reese Witherspoon. Small wonder our heroes are set up as opposing forces. Like, duh. Their trifle to shake up their humdrum existence thwarting terrorists is a paper wad pissing contest. K commented that when two guys fight over the same girl they’ll go to ridiculous ends to make each other look bad. In the end they will both look bad and rather foolish in the process. Passive aggressive comedy. I got it.
With that nailed to the wall, K offered up this corker: “Their aim is magnificent!” Pretty sure she was talking about Pine and Hardy’s prowess with firearms, but in the abstract this was spot on. At least played for cringey laughs. So now I enter the time to perform an autopsy on the acting chops of our protags and “innocent” bystander. It’s two guys at polar ends vying for the affection of a very guarded, rather practical woman. A tough nut to
Witherspoon has made a rep for herself as a self-sufficient, confident actress regardless of her roles. You can’t con her. From Walk The Line to Wild to Cruel Intensions to even The Man In The Moon, Pleasantville and Legally Blonde (before God) you cannot f*ck with her. Her drive is too strong. Her in War, mostly playing against type was refreshingly welcome. Nothing truly steely about her Lauren, which was almost satirical based against her cinematic CV, but made her for a fun, neurotic foil to our two dreamy, drooling operatives.
Still, I’ve never felt Witherspoon gets the solid respect she deserves. Don’t ask me why. She’s very a versatile actress with both great comic timing as well and not pull her cinematic punches with drama. Might be my own myopic view of her big roles being a good chunk like here in War: seemingly disposable and frothy stuff that sells mondo tickets. Consider Sweet Home Alabama, Legally Blonde and Cruel Intentions to name a few. These flicks were popular and the bills got paid, but I feel she really cut her teeth on projects the harrowing Wild and the coal black Election. The “just another pretty face” label has been a scarlet A on her head for too long mow. That Oscar? Given for hard work over a spectrum, or rather than a one off yet earnest role? Baby, baby, baby the late, journeyman, venerable, character actor Ned Beatty won his Best Supporting as a cameo in Network, for all of maybe 20 minutes of screen time, and his CV was lightyears long with just as many hits and misses (EG: Deliverance versus the original Superman franchise). Reese had to fend off a crazed Mark Wahlberg in her breakout role in Fear for decidedly most of that danged squalor. Taste is always subjective, and more times than not determines what road a talented actor may follow. What I’m driving at is that some may follow their muse whilst others will follow the paycheck. I, for one, do not believe Witherspoon is in it for a new mansion, but must play the course as it lays to earn some street cred.
Or she can have it both ways. Witherspoon has always been the thinking person’s Jolie. Sure, she’s pretty but never a dumb blonde (which may be why the Legally films are so chuckle worthy). Letting down that expected cinematic guard with War made her a shoo-in for more active, vibrant onscreen adventures, meaning those that aren’t as broad as the Legally movies (read: A Wrinkle In Time, Gone Girl and even Mud), but more esoteric. War was kinda like that, but with a rather mocking take. Wasn’t Lauren sorta being set up like some trophy between two lonely dudes? Like a sex object even; indie woman to dependent girl? And like how if Lauren had such sharp eyes she never got hip to FDR and Tuck’s scheming? Was it all of the clandestine spy stuff made solid. Or was Lauren weighing options? Uh, yeah, duh. With razor sharp Witherspoon in her prime, the joke gets skewed, the roles are reversed and all of it results in a classic error of the sexes. With lotsa booms. Reese is too clever to chose a role such as Lauren without knowing how to send it up. War was a great opportunity to make a send-up of her persona, which in he endgame was zany funny. I’n almost ashamed to make that claim. Blame K, dang it.
Pine and Hardy turned out to be surprisingly ideal for their roles. FDR, movie expert and smarm expert. Tuck, nice and safe guy in the wrong job. Yin and yang shocker. It helped that with War being all bromantic our two male leads had more experience as either portraying Captain Kirk and Venom (depending what color pill you took). Pine has been known to have nice comic timing also, as well as being well indoctrinated as an action guy. From young Captain Kirk to Wonder Woman’s squeeze to even fish-out-of-water CIA analyst Jack Ryan, he’s always likable with a quip as well as a phaser or whatever. Let’s face facts, the guy is super handsome and very disarming. Hell, I would date him. And he’s more style than substance with War.
Unlike his foil. Tom Hardy’s roles tend to be ugly, both literally and physically with only a nub of humor as a last resort (EG: Mad Max: Fury Road, Venom or Bane in The Dark Knight Rises). Let’s just say his strength does not lie in selling the most cookies in his troop. Oddly enough his Tuck is kind, humble, self-effacing and f*cking nothing you saw in The Revenant. While FDR revels in frat boy joy as an operative, Tuck always tries to be subtle, even if it’s only to keep a low profile for his estranged family that still think he’s a travel agent. Oh Tuck’s a travel agent all right, he just never wanted one to recommend an easy getaway spot. Hardy’s a real smooth smoothie in War, as well as sympathetic and charismatic. Both roles are stereotypical, but the elan our spies play out with feel nothing but. These guys are the real deal: lonely guys. Who hasn’t been there, and who hasn’t looked for the opportunity to get out of the rut? Sure, it sounds like a new meme sensation. But come on, spies or no, license to kill or no hasn’t yer bro ever get hung up a girl so badly you’d be more than happy to take the problem off his hands? Heh heh.
I took War at face value. It was a farce as rom-com as well as spy movie. What I did not expect was the giddy deconstructionist/deterministic edge it had. If you think about it (once more) Shakespeare was very clever in his tragic plays to insert humor right before the sh*t went down, making it all the more terrible. War substituted terrible with collateral damage, also effective and sometime hawking up chucks ridiculous (True Lies anyone?). War delivered the chunks, however there was one glaring issue with the plot, and I mean a structural issue with the plot. Sometimes flicks like this demand whiz-bang with no questions asked…so long as the plot, no matter how sh*tty, follows some logic. War was a flick devoid of realistic logic, but there are still principle rules that must be obeyed. At least within the context of the plot.
Don’t make me quote determinism theory again.
Good. This was the only matter that bugged me with War, and it wasn’t about content. The B plot, Heinrich’s character motives were shoved to the back burner for too long, as if the final confrontation was just gravy, sideshow, blown load or just “The hell?” I knew War was an action/rom-com hybrid, but both kind of films always has the antagonist stewing the background, plotting his next move. We had swaths of plot bouncing along that were action fun with no sign of the big baddie. Heinrich’s plotting revenge as Maguffin. What ostensibly set the gears in motion. Come on. The villain lying in wait is a classic spy movie trope (EG James Mason in North By Northwest), which should have been skewed like everything else in War. Bummer. Might’ve invited more action zaniness.
Okay. So, what have we learned? A few things. Not all rom-coms are created equal. Director McG had a few tricks up his sleeve in delivering a movie that was fun via parody and self-awareness, not just action and one-liners. Tom Hardy can play a nice guy whilst still cracking skulls. Continental philosophy really has no place in a movie review. And K has surprisingly good taste for fun films.
Rent it or relent it? Rent it. This Means War is fun, witty, winking, stupid and a rather clever lampoon of both spy capers and rom-coms. Overall, it’s a disposable, good waste of time. A movie that requires being watched alone with cold, leftover pizza at the ready.
The Stray Observations…
- Joe Jackson’s “Look Sharp!” Get it?
- “Don’t touch my grill.”
- Cheeto Wednesday. Own it.
- “Why is he listening to that old man?
- Do any of the CIA’s satellite offices use fluorescent lighting?
- “That’s mommy’s special milk!” Did Handler ad lib everything?
- The knife, then the knife.
- “…Then he entered the premises.”
- The Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage.” Get it?
- “Steal this car for me?”
- Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid. Get it?
- “I’m Yoko!”
- Sade’s “Smooth Operator.” Get it okay I’ll stop.
- “We will see about that and about that we will see.”
The Next Time…
Commemorating RIORI‘s installment number 200(!), I’m going to make up for my past blunder and present Part Two of the James Brown biopic, Get On Up.
Can I count it off? Again?