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Mr. and Mrs. Smith

(2005) ** 1/2 Pg-13
115 min. 20th Century Fox. Director: Doug Liman. Cast: Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Vince Vaughn, Adam Brody, Kerry Washington.

Mr. and Mrs. Smith has a one-joke premise, and it's one we've seen before. The tagline for 1985's Prizzi's Honor says it all: "Hired killers by day. Devoted lovers by night. Until they found their next assignment was each other." The differences between the two films are, of course, significant: at a reported budget of around $125 million, Mr. and Mrs. Smith certainly cost more, the subtleties of writer Richard Condon and director John Huston are in a whole different ballpark from screenwriter Simon Kinberg (XXX: State of the Union) and director Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity), and Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie are younger, sleeker, and—at least at the moment—more notorious than Jack Nicholson and Kathleen Turner. But Liman fights valiantly to sustain the newfangled comic tango and largely succeeds.

There's honestly no more plot to report than that Pitt and Jolie play John and Jane Smith, a suburban married couple—bored, vaguely dissatisfied, and in couples therapy—who discover at roughly the same moment that each is a professional assassin for a rival "company." This revelation quickly turns the two against each other in mortal combat, while compromising their positions in the (military-industrial? criminal?) underworld, where Vince Vaughn stirs up laughs as Pitt's hitman buddy Eddie. The plot is a vehicle for two tussling goals: to play out an allegory of marriage, and to shoot and blow up everything in sight, the better to attract summer-movie audiences (a little sex between purported real-life lovers Pitt and Jolie doesn't hurt).

In these respects, Mr. and Mrs. Smith is a crowd pleaser with a meaning that audiences immediately intuit, even if their brains are turned off for maximum blockbuster fun. The dangerous heat of new love "settles down" into marginally comfortable boredom, lies, and extra-curricular pursuits. Next comes the threat of ugly divorce, represented here by a slyly threatening dinner scene that erupts into a life-threatening chase through the 'burbs (wives: "They all try to kill you!" insists Eddie). Soon thereafter, the Smiths trash their tricked-out home and hearth with heavy artillery and batter each other in hand-to-hand combat (scored, too cheekily for my blood, to the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band's "Express Yourself"), but all the new heat they generate rekindles their passion: nothing like a brutal beating to prime a "kiss and make up" session. Predictably, third-party threats remind the couple that they're in it together.

Liman directs in the annoying visual greenery of his generation (maybe he lives underwater), but he handles his stars with aplomb and pumps out undeniably jaunty action sequences. Aside from the shortage of plot (a particular demerit for a two-hour movie), the film's biggest problem is that it's all personality and no character. When the personalities are Pitt and Jolie, few will care: they'll be too busy projecting People magazine gossip or, more likely, themselves onto the larger-than-life, buff and busty dream vessels we call movie stars. Here, they're worth every penny, cocking eyebrows and furrowing brows, taunting, griping, and relishing every bit of action. Pitt is especially good at filigreeing old gags and emotional tropes with singular bits of business, as when he annoys Jolie by softly singing along with Air Supply during a memorable setpiece, a minivan chase on the highway.

Kinberg has a ball punning on the contrast between everyday doldrums and mortal spy games: a businessman neighbor blithely referring to a corporate "bloodbath" while the Smith's exchange of "I missed you" takes on new meaning. The contrast is a bit like The Addams Family: half of the jokes are in the underplaying. He: "That's the second time you tried to kill me." She: "Oh, it was just a little bomb." The two compare their number of kills as if they were confessing (or boasting) previous sex partners. Liman's visual analogs include not only the subverted dinner scene, home trashing, and minivan chase, but a life-and-death showdown amid the domestic tableaus of a home-improvement store.

The casual brutality sits uneasily with Liman's tonal insistence that it's all a romp, abetted by John Powell's percussive, stringy score (two parts action rehash, one part tango); unlike the unsparing War of the Roses (also starring Kathleen Turner), Mrs. and Mrs. Smith clings to its "007" fantasy that order can and will be improbably restored, against the matrimonial and spy-game odds. A newly philosophical John says of marriage, "You take your best shot," but Mrs. and Mrs. Smith is a few inches wide of a bull's eye.

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