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Pretty good shots

The style and charisma of 'Mr. & Mrs. Smith' drolly outgun its plot contrivance.

June 10, 2005|Kenneth Turan | Times Staff Writer

MARRIAGES, even the happy ones, can sometimes feel like combat zones.

But what if a marriage really was a combat zone, with the husband and wife literally trying to kill each other? And what if the spouses were really good at that sort of thing -- professionally good?

This is the world of "Mr. & Mrs. Smith," and if you think that premise sounds farfetched, especially for an action-based romantic comedy, you don't know the half of it. Plot contrivance and major league implausibility are the bread and butter of a film whose motto might be "look all you want but don't think too hard." Fortunately, when your stars are Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, looking -- and listening -- will keep you well satisfied.

Yes, it is finally here, the film that launched a tidal wave of tabloid coverage when gossips detected the germ of a relationship between the two stars. To see "Mr. & Mrs." is to understand why everyone cared: It's hard to think of a more compellingly attractive on-screen couple. But Brad and Angelina are not just eye candy. Under Doug Liman's tutelage, they are having it both ways: enjoying themselves and each other while simultaneously sending up their public image.

Working from a droll script Simon Kinberg wrote as a film school master's thesis, director Liman does what he did before in films like "Swingers" and "The Bourne Identity": bring a pleasantly offbeat and knowing sensibility to genre material.

It's not that "Mr. & Mrs." doesn't have its problems. For a project that Entertainment Weekly reported went through more than 100 screenplay drafts as well as assorted reshoots, it's not surprising that the film is noticeably slow getting started and could use some trims throughout. But in the end, star charisma and Liman's style win us over and we relax into a sophisticated summertime diversion that is noticeably intended for adults.

Who else but adults would recognize the film's framing device, as John and Jane Smith are introduced facing the camera and reluctantly participating in a marriage therapy session. "We don't have to be here," John grumbles, but as we listen to their answers and observe their private life, it's clear they do.

The pair met cute five (or was it six?) years ago in Bogota, Colombia. Unknown to each other, both were highly skilled lone assassins who on this day were in less danger of being picked up by the police if they hooked up in the hotel bar. Each thinks the other has a square job and both assume that marriage to a civilian will provide convenient cover for their deadly activities.

Unlikely as this scenario is, the next notion we have to buy into is more illogical still: In all those years of marriage neither one has so much as suspected what the other does for a living or that huge caches of weaponry are secreted around the house. It would be an impossible concept to sell without the glamour of Pitt and Jolie, which is precisely why they got the jobs.

It takes about an hour for the inevitable to happen with a vengeance: In the middle of their marital crisis, the Smiths not only discover the nature of their spouses' careers, they also end up being assigned to kill each other by the competing organizations they work for. James Bond never had problems like this.

It is at this point that "Mr. & Mrs. Smith" begins to entertain us in earnest by juggling some droll simultaneous happenings, starting with the notion that a series of mishaps and misunderstandings makes it seem to each of the Smiths that the other is actually trying to kill him or her, triggering an understandably lethal reaction.

At the same time, the Smiths are bickering as only married people can, trying, in classic talk-it-out tropes, to save their relationship. Lines like "don't go to sleep angry" and "where there is no trust, there can be no love" acquire an amusing resonance when played out against a backdrop of focused mayhem. As Mr. Smith explains to a third party just before threatening to dismember him, "The missus and I are working through some domestic issues."

Aided by Liman, both Pitt and Jolie prove themselves adept at the kind of arch innuendo the script demands. And Liman himself, though he can't resist an excessive hyper-action finale, orchestrates a number of touches that generate smiles.

There's "Swingers" veteran Vince Vaughn as Mr. Smith's partner Eddie, who replies to a simple greeting with a shambling "Same old, same old; people need killing." There's the film's unexpected use of music -- in one particularly adroit case pairing "Express Yourself" with a scene of hand-to-hand combat.

Most of all what Liman does here is make fun seem like fun. It's a harder thing to accomplish than might be imagined.


'Mr. & Mrs. Smith'

MPAA rating: PG-13 for violence, intense action, sexual content and brief strong language

Times guidelines: Mass killings of the comic-book variety

Released by Twentieth Century Fox. Director Doug Liman. Producers Arnon Milchan, Akiva Goldsman, Lucas Foster, Patrick Wachsberger, Eric McLeod. Executive producer Erik Feig. Screenplay Simon Kinberg. Cinematographer Bojan Bazelli. Editor Michael Tronick. Costumes Michael Kaplan. Music John Powell. Production design Jeff Mann. Supervising art director David Sandefur. Set decorator Victor J. Zolfo. Running time: 2 hours.

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