**1/2 (out of four)
Seconds into the action-comedy-romance “This Means War,” CIA boss Collins (Angela Bassett) instructs operatives/best friends Tuck (Tom Hardy) and FDR (Chris Pine), “Remember, this mission is covert.” This seems like something that can go without saying. Or are there some incredibly public, free-for-all missions about which the agents are allowed to tweet? “Off to Berlin, fate of world at stake. #WeCanDoIt #USA.FTW.”
Thankfully, that degree of terrible rears its head only, uh, every 10 minutes or so—particularly in the presence of Trish (Chelsea Handler), the infinitely obnoxious best friend of Lauren (Reese Witherspoon), who enters into enjoyable but inevitably complicated relationships with both Tuck and FDR. (She doesn’t know they know each other.) A pause to address Handler: I love Cheetos. And I will never forgive you for subjecting me to how Trish and her husband use them.
Somehow this jumble turns into a frequently funny delight, the result of some crack casting that pits a lonely, divorced dad (Hardy) against a cocky schmoozer (Pine). Hardy’s incredibly appealing; Pine can do arrogant and leave room for softness, and Witherspoon never lets the gullible Lauren come off as too much of a fool. Barely.
Liking “This Means War” means suspending disbelief that the CIA would use its powers to observe ordinary citizens (no way, right?) and that a woman would have no qualms about learning her man, who told her he was a travel agent or a cruise ship captain, actually risks his life constantly as a highly trained special agent. The movie bites from “True Lies” and many others (really, enough with the generic Russian villains, please), and director McG (“Charlie’s Angels”) always will favor the stylized explosion over the quiet moment.
Yet whether Tuck’s paintball-bombing a shelter of kids during a capture-the-flag game or holding Lauren on a trapeze during a date, “This Means War” periodically circles back to quality both loud and small. “Sometimes falling is the best part,” Tuck tells Lauren after joining her in a net below the trapeze, just before their first kiss. Their connection is real. And that romantic “Awwwww” moment, guys and gals, ultimately makes this a better V-Day flick than “The Vow.”
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