Mr. and Mrs. Smith (2005)

Assassins are lovable and attractive; at least, that’s what movie after movie tells us. Hollywood filmmakers, who know a thing or two about taking soulless jobs for the money, are mesmerized by the cool amorality of people who kill for a living (as well as the potential for action blowouts in which dozens of people drop like flies and the audience doesn’t have to care). Some movies use the hit-man as a useful launchpad for commentary: Grosse Pointe Blank, for instance, was a slyly satirical view of middle-class mores, and Collateral explored the human cost of murder for hire. Mr. and Mrs. Smith, with Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie as a married couple who don’t know they’re also rival assassins, is a jovial, half-smart domestic comedy in which domesticity itself is a joke.

John (Pitt) and Jane (Jolie) have settled into a lucrative rut together. Each thinks the other is in some fat-paycheck line of work that keeps them out of the house a lot. The amount of elaborate deception required to sustain their mutual lie isn’t credible in the least, but we’ll let that pass. The movie’s bottom line is the pairing of Pitt and Jolie, and the happy (or not so happy for Jennifer Aniston) accident of their apparently having become a real-life couple during filming. How’s their chemistry? Well, they’re both in on the joke, and they both know how to keep themselves amused in big-budget spectacles. Certainly they lack the sparks that, say, John Cusack and Minnie Driver shared in Grosse Pointe Blank. Part of the movie’s point is that John and Jane are bored with each other until they’re trying to kill each other, and that part of the film doesn’t last very long.

I suppose it’s useless to expect wit and elegance from a movie like this. Mr. and Mrs. Smith is amusing, but only in the “surprisingly not-infantile for a $100 million summer action flick” sense of the word. Vince Vaughn, dropping in now and then as John’s crony in assassination, scores some laughs but reminds us how far he and his director here, Doug Liman, have come — or fallen — since their mutual debut in Liman’s 1996 indie comedy Swingers. I wasn’t a fan of that film, but it caught the pulse of something real, and Liman’s next feature, 1999′s Go, was a chaotic little sweetheart of a Gen-X comedy. Since then, though, Liman has gravitated to impersonal big-budget thrills, with 2002′s The Bourne Identity and now this. The Liman of nine years ago might’ve cast Vince Vaughn as John and perhaps Janeane Garofalo as Jane, and allowed the film to rest on intelligence instead of concussive action climaxes.

The film’s structure is predictable in every beat. John and Jane are set against each other, then rediscover their passion for one another and band together against their mutual enemy. (It isn’t a black, bleak comedy like The War of the Roses, ending in degradation and death for them both.) For what seems like forever, the movie devolves into duck/cover/shoot, in which the heroes’ virtuosity with firearms somehow means that the six hundred trained assassins shooting at them are all lousy shots. A car chase in a stolen SUV has comic potential, starting off with Air Supply’s plaintively nerdy “Making Love Out of Nothing at All” oozing out of the car radio and featuring Brad Pitt briefly making hostile use of a golf club, but it eventually peters out. Just because Liman has found himself at the wheel of two action movies doesn’t make him an action director.

For a brief moment, when John and Jane are joined in an embrace while firing guns in opposite directions — like a romantic parody of John Woo — I dared to hope that Mr. and Mrs. Smith would end on a high operatic note: the killer lovers going out with guns blazing and tongues entwined. But the movie is bracketed by the couple’s visits to an offscreen therapist, and we’re to understand that the whole experience has brought them closer. No fallout from all the people they’ve killed, no further danger from whoever wanted them dead, no competitiveness between each other. The upper-class killers, smirking at us from the screen at the end, are validated in their highly lucrative and destructive lifestyle choice. I guess that’s less tiresome than the “crime does not pay” punishments of much older movies, but it still leaves a sour taste in one’s mouth.

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