Two hunky guys vying for one smart-mouthed heroine

Tom Hardy, the strapping British actor, made quite an impression in Inception and Warrior by confidently flexing his muscles and sardonic smile.

Yet, to cast him in a romantic comedy, even one with as much physical action as This Means War, is like trying to tickle your lover with paintball grenades. Hardy is raffishly charming. But you don't send a grenade to do a feather's job. Which is exactly the mistake that McG, director of this earsplitting, hyperbolic love triangle, makes.

Again and again this comedy cowritten by the author of Mr. and Mrs. Smith and Sherlock Holmes fires projectiles larger than its target. The objective is thimble-size Lauren (Reese Witherspoon), a lovelorn products tester. Two CIA agents, best buds, pursue her romantically. The unfunny joke is that they spy on each other's dates as they might on a terrorist's activities. Hardy is Agent Tuck. Chris Pine is Agent FDR. That's right, as in the New Deal president. And they are as codependent as Holmes and Watson.

Best remembered as the overconfident Kirk in the Star Trek reboot and as the conductor of the runaway train in Unstoppable, Pine would not be able to keep up with Hardy in a shooting range or boxing ring. But as FDR, who runs into Lauren in a video store (they still have those?) right after her blind date with Tuck, Pine keeps Hardy on the ropes.

McG, auteur of the Charlie's Angels films, is not blessed with finesse. He amps up the decibel level and, whenever possible, films his characters in vehicles that exceed not just the speed limit but engine capacity. The result is a calculated date movie that aims low but provides the basic movie pleasure of seeing good-looking people looking good.

There's action and male competition enough to satisfy the connoisseurs of beer ads. And there are two hunky guys for its smart-mouthed heroine to choose between, furnishing fantasy fodder both for women and men who love men.

Witherspoon has at least two scenes that show how fast-thinking Lauren is. She is confident enough to costar with actors who are as pretty as she is. It's amusing to watch an actress the scale of a Chihuahua as she playfully spars with costars the sizes of a Rottweiler and a Greyhound.

Despite the title of the film, the best friends don't declare war on each other. Theirs is a mostly amicable, if often bruising, competition as to who is the better romantic fit for Lauren. The film's focus on the contest between the two agents does throw the film off-balance.

Chelsea Handler is on hand as Lauren's best friend and sounding board, a sunshiny killjoy who's both wistful and acerbic. Although her presence rebalances the film, War is a bromantic comedy tricked out in the clothes of a romantic one.

This Means War

Directed by McG. With Til Schweiger, Reese Witherspoon, Tom Hardy, David Koechner, Angela Bassett, Chelsea Handler, Chris Pine, Laura Vandervoort. Distributed by Twentieth Century Fox.

Running time: 2 hours, 0 minutes.

Parent's guide: PG-13 (for sexual content including references, some violence and action, and for language).