Hostilities in This Means War are declared as two work mates compete for the affection of the same woman. The contested objective is Lauren (Reese Witherspoon), a product tester who decides to apply comparative shopping techniques to dating. Her would-be beaus, FDR (Chris Pine) and Tuck (Tom Hardy), are best friends who sit across from each other at work. The hook is that their desks are in the slate-colored guts of the CIA's Los Angeles field office — and that the boys will put the agency's entire arsenal to work in their pursuit.
Tuck has a 7-year-old son and an ex-wife and is now shy in love; FDR is a Don Juan who knows every club doorman in town and who finds more than his match in Lauren, a woman ready to inform him when he's grossly overestimating the effect of the twinkle in his eye.
The cocky presumption of charm that isn't actually there is precisely the problem with action-comedy This Means War: It's a movie that acts straightaway like it has an audience eating out of its hand while neglecting to do anything surprising or delightful to actually seduce that audience.
The problem is not the cast, exactly. In the office, Hardy does some funny passive-aggressive business with his keyboard, his nattering put-down rapport with Pine sometimes threatens almost to mesh, and Witherspoon remains one of our most game, least vain female comics. The premise — two men abusing their access to billions of dollars of spy tech to pursue a woman — is novel, even potentially promising as a satire of dating in the online intel era, with FDR and Tuck customizing their approach to Lauren's interests while anticipating and adapting their pitches to her every complaint, gathered in surveillance of Lauren's girl-talk sessions with pal Chelsea Handler. But aside from the high-concept novelty, This Means War prefers to keep things as familiar as possible at every opportunity, so as not to disorient the most timid paying customer. By the time the line "Was this some kind of bet?" arrives, it's clear that this is timetable script-writing, with confrontation coming right on schedule.
By the law of rom-coms, FDR is ripe for comeuppance for assuming he can put the same lines over on every girl — but This Means War assumes the same: an audience that will always react to the same button-pushing emotional and musical cues, like Pavlov's dogs. This arrogance is the difference between crowd-pleasing and pandering.