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This Means War

In This Means War - a stylish action/rom-com hybrid from director McG - Tom Hardy (The Dark Knight Rises) and Chris Pine (Star Trek) star as CIA operatives whose close friendship is strained by the fires of romantic rivalry. Best pals FDR (Pine) and Tuck (Hardy) are equally accomplished at the spy game, but their fortunes diverge dramatically in the dating realm: FDR (so nicknamed for his obvious resemblance to our 32nd president) is a smooth-talking player with an endless string of conquests, while Tuck is a straight-laced introvert whose love life has stalled since his divorce. Enter Lauren (Reese Witherspoon), a pretty, plucky consumer-products evaluator who piques both their interests in separate, unrelated encounters. Tuck meets her via an online-dating site, FDR at a video-rental store. (That Lauren is tech-savvy enough to date online but still rents movies in video stores is either a testament to her fascinating mix of contradictions, or more likely an example of lazy screenwriting.)

When Tuck and FDR realize they're pursuing the same girl, it sparks their respective competitive natures, and they decide to make a friendly game of it. But what begins as a good-natured rivalry swiftly devolves into romantic bloodsport, with both men using the vast array of espionage tools at their disposal - from digital surveillance to poison darts - to gain an edge in the battle for Lauren's affections. If her constitutional rights happen to be violated repeatedly in the process, then so be it.

Lauren, for her part, remains oblivious to the clandestine machinations of her dueling suitors, and happily basks in the sudden attention from two gorgeous men. Herein we find the Reese Witherspoon Dilemma: While certainly desirable, Lauren is far from the irresistible Helen of Troy type that would inspire the likes of Tuck and FDR to risk their friendship, their careers, and potential incarceration for. At several points in This Means War, I found myself wondering if there were no other peppy blondes in Los Angeles (where the film is primarily set) for these men to pursue. Then again, this is a film that wishes us to believe that Tom Hardy would have trouble finding a date, so perhaps plausibility is not its strong point.

When Lauren needs advice, she looks to her boozy, foul-mouthed best friend, Trish (Chelsea Handler). Essentially an extension of Handler's talk-show persona - an acquired taste if there ever was one - Trish's dialogue consists almost exclusively of filthy one-liners, delivered in rapid-fire succession. Handler does have some choice lines - indeed, they're practically the centerpiece of This Means War's ad campaign - but the film derives the bulk of its humor from the outrageous lengths Tuck and FDR go to sabotage each others' efforts, a raucous game of spy-versus-spy that carries the film long after Handler's shtick has grown stale.

Business occasionally intrudes upon matters in the guise of Heinrich (Til Schweiger), a Teutonic arms dealer bent on revenge for the death of his brother. The subplot is largely an afterthought, existing primarily as a means to provide third-act fireworks - and to allow McGenius an outlet for his ADD-inspired aesthetic proclivities. The film's action scenes are edited in such a manic, quick-cut fashion that they become almost laughably incoherent. In fairness to McG, he does stage a rather marvelous sequence in the middle of the film, in which Tuck and FDR surreptitiously skulk about Lauren's apartment, unaware of each other's presence, carefully avoiding detection by Lauren, who grooves absentmindedly to Montel Jordan's ''This Is How We Do It.'' The whole scene unfolds in one continuous take - or is at least craftily constructed to appear as such - captured by one very agile steadicam operator.

Whatever his flaws as a director, McG is at least smart enough to know how much a witty script and appealing leads can compensate for a film's structural and logical deficiencies. He proved as much with Charlie's Angels, a film that enjoys a permanent spot on many a critic's Guilty Pleasures list, and does so again with This Means War. The film coasts on the chemistry of its three co-stars, and only runs into trouble when the time comes to resolve its romantic competition, which, by the end, has driven its male protagonists to engage in all manner of underhanded and duplicitous activities. This Means War being a commercial film - and likely an expensive one at that - Witherspoon's heroine is mandated to make a choice, and McG all but sidesteps the whole thorny matter of Tuck and FDR's unwavering dishonesty, not to mention their craven disregard for her privacy. (They regularly eavesdrop on her activities.) For all their obvious charms, the truth is that neither deserves Lauren - or anything other than a lengthy jail sentence, for that matter.

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Follow on Twitter. rated this film 3 1/2 stars.