Rating:The extent to which negative reviews affect a filmmaker is questionable, but in the case of McG (born Joseph McGinty Nichol), it’s clear that they do not. His films run so directly counter to the standards of good taste that you’d have to imagine he’s impervious to criticism. This can liberate a director to do whatever he wants, which for McG seems to be nothing more than to treat the cinema like a playground. This self-indulgence is redeemed by McG’s manic stylistic eccentricity, which makes him seem vaguely like one of those inventive and lowbrow auteurs from Hollywood’s past who would later be reclaimed by French critics and Americans like Andrew Sarris. Hollywood is different today, and McG is something of a media mogul, with hands in projects like the Charlie’s Angels and “The O.C.” It may be pointless to “reclaim” someone who’s already on the top, but those dismissing McG would have a stronger case if they didn’t ground their argument in snobbery and complaints about “realism.” McG’s new film This Means War is admittedly a hodgepodge, but the one thing you can’t accuse it of being is bland. And anyways, cinephiles love a good, messy challenge.
While This Means War retains contemporary Hollywood’s blustering crudity, it’s not hard to see its connections with past auteurs. McG’s approach is akin to that of a less sophisticated, more juvenile Frank Tashlin, all vibrant colors and comic book sensibility. Tashlin’s style, of course, derived partly from his work in animation, while McG got his start in music videos, but the tendency is the same: treat human bodies like cartoons, with an emphasis on their plasticity. Welded to this is McG’s crass sensibility, which finds a middle ground between Blake Edwards’ candid vulgarity and Russ Meyer’s shameless bawdiness. Of contemporary directors, though, McG most resembles a version of filmmaking duo Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, albeit one that has yet to fully relinquish the last vestiges of well-mannered restraint.
Profoundly conventional in its narrative, This Means War resolves its story of two CIA agents (Tom Hardy and Chris Pine) who fall for and pursue the same woman (Reese Witherspoon) in a way that is, in retrospect, disturbingly tidy. After all, this is romance aided by the technology of America’s military-industrial complex, as Hardy and Pine use the manpower and resources of the CIA to plot their seduction strategies. In effect, it’s as obvious a portrayal of heterosexual white male privilege as you could imagine. When Witherspoon’s character eventually ends up choosing one of them, as the narrative virtually demands of her, the satisfactory narrative closure hides the unacknowledged yet subtextually unavoidable fact that she has no choice but to pick one of these suitors, just as capitalism champions free choice while shaping and restricting our options from the very beginning. A key influence here is Hitchcock, referenced explicitly in a scene featuring The Lady Vanishes (the Criterion release, no less!). It’s easy to forget that underneath the similarly tidy resolution at the end of Marnie, there is the sheer horror of everything that came before it, including a never-addressed rape scene between a newly married husband and wife.
Of course, This Means War is far less empathetic toward its female protagonist, seeming more like a romance between Hardy and Pine. In one of the film’s best scenes, Pine is getting ready to romance Witherspoon, and while she is in the bathroom, he puts on “Smooth Operator” by Sade but is then shot with a tranquilizer dart by Hardy, perched on a rooftop some distance away. As Pine loses consciousness, the music slows to a crawl before being replaced by the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage,” and timed perfectly, “Smooth Operator” returns once again, ironically, as Witherspoon emerges from the bathroom to discover an incapacitated Pine. This scene notably finds all of its drama while Witherspoon’s character is absent, using its dueling soundtracks to emphasize its male homosocial romance and blurring the line between war, sport and sex. In the end, the only match for these two men, operating with the full power of the U.S. government behind them, is each other, which is why the moment when it seems like their friendship might be irreparably broken is also the most somber.
This is undoubtedly a “boys will be boys” type of movie, with McG as its mischievous co-conspirator, and like a lot of Hollywood’s trash cinema, it’s best enjoyed by first being broken apart, the chaff separated out. But it would be wrong to dismiss it altogether. McG has a keen, joyous sense of color, often tinting shots in a wonderfully expressive manner. His images move well and often pop like comic book panels, so no matter the inanity of the script he’s bringing to life, the visual interest sustains one’s attention. It’s hard to tell just how much McG’s invested in the story here, and if anything, his major flaw as a director is not his childlike irrepressibility but, on the contrary, his tendency to remain too shackled to convention. Because even if a director has given up on making films for critics, he’s often still chained to audience expectations. It’s hard to imagine what a fully unbridled McG film would look like, but there’s enough here to make one curious. And in the world of formulaic, cookie-cutter rom-coms, maybe a disregard for the tepid standards of good taste isn’t such a bad thing.