Tom Hardy, Chris Pine, and Reese Witherspoon in This Means WarTHIS MEANS WAR

The latest instantly disposable, cinematic-junk-food entertainment by Charlie's Angels and Terminator Salvation director McG is the romantic-comedy action thriller This Means War, and it should be said that the first half of the movie isn't bad. It's closer to excruciating.

In theory, even without the aid of the film's trailers, we should know exactly what to expect from this high-concept trifle about a pair of best-bud CIA agents (Tom Hardy's Tuck and Chris Pine's FDR) who compete for the affections of a perky blond product-tester (Reese Witherspoon's Lauren). There'll likely be a stunt- and wisecrack-filled prelude establishing the guys' bad-assery and adorableness, followed by a pair of individual Meet Cutes in which Tuck and FDR (whose name isn't recognized as a joke) become smitten with Lauren yet aren't aware of the other's interest in her. We'll get the scene where the men discover they're pursuing the same woman and agree to let Lauren - who doesn't know of their CIA involvement - choose between them, while subsequently doing everything in their power to sabotage the other's chances, be it through surveillance cameras, wire-tapping, or the occasional tranquilizer dart to the neck. There'll be hostile slapstick and bitchy insults and much hand-wringing over which blue-eyed beau Lauren will pick; inevitably, she'll be given one lone girlfriend (here, it's Chelsea Handler) to act as her sardonic sounding board. And it will all climax with a frenzied chase and gunfight in which, after Lauren has dumped both of them, Tuck and FDR must mend their relationship to save their beloved from a diabolical Euro-trash villain (here, it's Til Schweiger).

That, in a nutshell, is This Means War, and I'm presuming that nothing about the aforementioned synopsis comes as a surprise. Yet during the movie's opening hour, I'll admit to being quite surprised - shocked, actually - at how distractingly, even staggeringly amateurish its presentation was. At first, I couldn't understand why McG's comedic shoot-'em-up was being preceded by that recently ubiquitous Ice Age short in which Scrat follows his acorn to the bottom of the ocean. (20th Century Fox really needs to give that mini-film a rest; this was at least the third time I've seen it at the cineplex in the past eight months.) It turns out, though, that the short is just preparing you for the feature's even more aggressive cartoonishness; this is a movie that finds Witherspoon and Handler shopping for laundry detergent, and Handler having to choose between two brightly colored boxes with the product name Laundry Detergent. (How the audience laughed at the lame jokes but not this bit of filmmaking ineptitude I'll never know.)

From the start, the continuity and sound design are damagingly poor, with little kids at a dojo smacking each other with the force of Rocky laying into Apollo Creed. And screenwriters Timothy Dowling and Simon Kinberg - the latter, not-so-coincidentally, the author of Brad Pitt's and Angelina Jolie's warring-spies vehicle Mr. & Mrs. Smith - continually pull out tired sitcom tropes that you thought, and hoped, had died years ago. (We even get a reprise of that wheezy gag in which a woman wants nothing to do with a guy but forces him into a passionate kiss as soon as she sees her ex-boyfriend approaching.) Yet even on a more basic narrative level, This Means War is a total misfire. Of course, we anticipate cookie-cutter characters and formulaic situations in blockbuster wannabes of this ilk, but you'd think there might at least be some lingering uncertainty as to which of our hunky heroes will get the girl. Here, though, our eventual romantic victor is made crushingly apparent as soon as we're introduced to Tuck's gorgeous, friendly ex-wife - whom Tuck is obviously still pining for - and their cute-as-a-button kid. We know going into the movie that it's going to give us a happy ending. Did the specifics of its happy ending really have to be revealed in the movie's first 10 minutes?

Still, I'm happy to report - well, "happy" to report - that there's just enough that's amusing about This Means War to make it a tolerable sit. Despite being stuck in dimensionless roles, Pine and Hardy share a relaxed and spirited rapport and make the most of the rare funny bits they're given; Hardy demonstrates particularly sharp comic instinct here, especially when goofing on Pine for his "teeny-tiny, itty-bitty jazz hands." (His thunderously intense performance in Nicolas Winding Refn's Bronson made me a fan forever, but I had no idea that Hardy also possessed such lightness of touch.) Witherspoon smiles brightly and does her Reese Witherspoon thing, Handler's acidic sarcasm leads to several legitimately laugh-out-loud moments, and while there's little that's fresh about the presentation, McG does manage to stage a few sequences with elan, such as the clever one-shot in which Tuck and FDR plant bugs in Lauren's home while the blissfully unaware woman makes popcorn and dances to Montell Jordan's "This Is How We Do It." It's a brief, mostly throwaway scene, but in This Means War, you have to take your minor pleasures wherever you can.


Nicolas Cage(ish) in Ghost Rider: Spirit of VengeanceGHOST RIDER: SPIRIT OF VENGEANCE

Because Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance didn't feature any opening credits beyond its title, and because I didn't research this action sequel prior to seeing it, I whispered the following into my hand-held recorder some 20 minutes into the film: "Whoever directed this is way more talented than whoever directed the original." The movie was crap, to be sure, but at least it was crap that was alive; compared to director Mark Steven Johnson's 2007 Ghost Rider, which was laughably earnest and deathly dull, this comic-book caper was unashamedly ridiculous and over-caffeinated from the get-go, and star Nicolas Cage (on-screen and in voice-over) was providing some of the incredibly welcome, beyond-eccentric looniness he recently brought to Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. I wasn't having fun, per se, but I was certainly alert.

And then about a half-hour later, after one random burst of stunningly tasteless and over-the-top gaudiness, it dawned on me. "Oh my God," I whispered, "the directors are Neveldine/Taylor." Connoisseurs of the outré will no doubt recognize the shorthanded moniker of Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, who hit peaks of infamy with Gerard Butler's icky Gamer and Jason Statham's two Crank adventures, movies so jacked-up and borderline (and oftentimes over-the-border) repellant that they're almost in a demented class by themselves. But while I generally loathe their work, I'll admit that the helmers are perhaps the absolute best thing that could have happened to the Ghost Rider franchise. Neveldine/Taylor replace everything that was tired and generic about the original (including Cage's performance) with a fervid, go-for-broke fearlessness and scuzziness to spare; very little about it works, but there's so much gusto in Spirit of Vengeance's bad ideas - our bike-riding anti-hero pissing fire, Idris Elba as a French assassin with colored contacts, a Jerry Springer gag more than a dozen years past its prime - that they almost morph into good ideas. The movie has a negligible plot and weak CGI and crummy supporting actors to spare. Yet it's never boring and almost preposterously confident, and it suggests that if you're going to produce a shlock-fest, you may as well amp up the proceedings with two of the shlockiest directors on the planet.


The Secret World of ArriettyTHE SECRET WORLD OF ARRIETTY

Based on Mary Norton's classic children's book The Borrowers, in which a family of little people (like blade-of-grass little) tries to avoid being detected by their "human bean" hosts, director Hiromasa Yonebayashi's The Secret World of Arrietty is a thoroughly charming animated entertainment, sprightly and inventive and offhandedly touching. With its script by Keiko Niwa and the legendary Japanese animation director Hayao Miyazaki, the movie boasts a pleasantly unrushed pace and lovely attention to detail, and is filled with supremely clever fringe touches; I especially loved the borrower dad's use of double-sided tape to scale a kitchen table-top. Even at a mere 90 minutes, there might not be quite enough going on in the film to merit its running length, but it's still a terrifically appealing family diversion - and an even better one for its inspiringly against-the-grain vocal casting. After all, what were the chances of our ever seeing a feature in which Will Arnett resembles Harrison Ford, Amy Poehler resembles Cloris Leachman, and Carol Burnett resembles Mike Myers?

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