In writer-director Mark Brown's "Two Can Play That Game," love and war are indistinguishable. As with his previous flick "How to Be a Player," Brown's protagonist is a seasoned vet of the emotional battlefield and explains directly to the audience about how the skirmishes should be executed. His themes are about as tired as they were in the previous film, but with a more likable and believable star ("Player" had an annoyingly smug Bill Bellamy), they seem a lot more relevant.
Vivica A. Fox ("Kingdom Come") is suitably sharp as Shantmith, a young black woman who has apparently figured out how to conquer the globe. Her palatial home and her job as a high-powered marketing executive belie her humble roots in Compton. Just as effortlessly as she can master a boardroom, she seems to know how to make straying men fall into line. When her buddies have trouble, her advice seems almost prophetic.
When it comes to her own situation with the opposite sex, Shantppears to have room to talk. Her beau is Keith (Morris Chestnut, "The Brothers"), a handsome gentleman and a fellow overachiever.
Her seemingly unshakable faith in Keith crumbles when she discovers him dancing with another woman at her favorite nightspot. Although miffed, Shantarely breaks a sweat because she has a 10-day system that can psychologically bully a man into submission.
As "Two Can Play That Game" progresses, one almost wonders if Keith is worthy of this technique, which bears more than a casual relationship to the infamous dating guide "The Rules." Keith is several steps above the other men in the film, some of whom Shantismisses as "scary curls" because of their exaggerated activator-enhanced coiffures. Despite his initiative and earnestness, he's too much of a sucker for her mind games. After a while, the rivalry becomes anticlimactic because it's so lopsided. Brown doesn't give him that distinct a personality, and Chestnut too often comes across a comely stooge.
To his credit, Brown does present some fine touches. It is refreshing to hear characters discuss the way Newtonian physics can be reflected in human behavior, as well as the usual banter about the physical attributes of their partners.
The director also gives Anthony Anderson a role that's a lot more dignified than he usually plays. His rotund frame has landed him some buffoonish turns in "Exit Wounds," "Romeo Must Die" and "See Spot Run," so it's fun to see him as Tony, Keith's seemingly clueless friend.
At first, Tony talks like a fellow whose only skill is his ability to envy other men's luck with the fairer sex. As Shant attacks intensify, Tony reveals a heretofore-unknown grasp of feminine wiles that is thoroughly on target. That's not bad for someone who is perennially dateless.
While it would make a less attractive lobby poster, one almost wonders if "Two Can Play That Game" might have had more comic zest if the combatants had been Fox and Anderson. The sight of them sparring directly seems a good deal funnier than having Chestnut reduced to being a mere proxy.
To her credit, Fox can make ostensibly worn devices like breaking the fourth wall seem less hackneyed. Nonetheless, "Two Can Play That Game" is one look at gender warfare that could use a little more ammunition.