A combination of star power and firepower can be a pretty good start when it comes to building a blockbuster, as the director known simply as McG demonstrated with his “Charlie’s Angels” films almost a decade ago. McG returns to that formula in “This Means War,” a raucous action comedy in which a tissue-thin plot is frequently pushed aside so that the movie can give us what we really came to see: Reese Witherspoon’s cascading, bouncin’-and-behavin’ blonde hair; Tom Hardy’s devilish smile; Chris Pine’s sparkling eyes, etc. These attractions are considerably more exciting than any exploding building or tumbling SUV could ever hope to be.
Like many films before it. “War” makes frequent references to cinematic classics — it includes as many old movie clips as a Turner Classic Movies promo — perhaps in the hope that it may be mistaken for a contemporary version of a 1930s screwball comedy. If “War” falls short of the mark, put the blame on the screenplay, which is neither snappy nor smart enough to give the extremely appealing performers enough traction to really take off. There are a few solid laughs along the way, but genuine wit and surprises are often in short supply.
“War” begins with the time-tested premise of best buddies competing for the same woman while trying to avoid jeopardizing their friendship. In this case, it’s CIA agents FDR (Pine) and Tuck (Hardy), who have each fallen under the spell of the perky Lauren (Witherspoon), a product researcher at a Consumer Reports-style website. She has taken each guy for a test drive, but can’t decide which one is the better bargain, leading to lots of deceptions, scheming and — given the men’s occupations — a considerable amount of high-tech surveillance and sabotage. If you never thought the Patriot Act could be a punchline, how wrong you are.
In between capturing Lauren’s heart, Tuck and FDR are also supposed to be tracking down a German super-villain named Heinrich (Til Schweiger), but the espionage portion of the plot is so underdeveloped that it barely registers until the last 15 minutes.
The “War” script has reportedly been floating around Hollywood for years, which might explain such oddly dated ideas as Tuck telling Lauren he’s a travel agent (a cover that made a lot more sense when spies Lori Singer and Dabney Coleman used it in 1985’s “The Man With One Red Shoe,” a comedy made in the days when there actually were travel agents). Another irritating miscalculation is the casting of the charisma-challenged Chelsea Handler as Lauren’s ribald confidante, who screeches about sex in the middle of a playground crawling with toddlers and, when the storyline requires it, abruptly transforms into some sort of suburban sage; whatever appeal Handler’s trash-talk may have on TV, it does not transfer to the screen.
McG is on safer ground when he simply lets Witherspoon, Pine and Hardy enjoy themselves. While the movie always opts for style over substance, it provides a generally jolly 90 minutes of escapism, primarily because the key players are so amiable. “War” may be hell, but watching these three bond and battle is pure pleasure.