A couple of years ago, I went to see the restored print of Visconti's The Leopard at the National Film Theatre. The next day I reeled into work, still numb with the wonder of the thing, and started bombarding my friend at the next desk with it - the way that every corner of the screen seemed to pulsate with life and detail. My friend - a hugely clever man, Balliol first, former foreign editor of a national newspaper - held up a hand and asked, "Were there car chases?". I confessed that there weren't. "Helicopters?" Not that you'd notice. Grave shake of the head: "Not really my sort of thing."
Clearly, Mr & Mrs Smith would be very much his sort of thing. Indeed, it's the sort of thing that will appeal to anybody who is in the mood for a little kiss-kiss, bang-bang action, unencumbered by distractions like characterisation, morality or thought. Isn't that most of us, from time to time at least? It's also, to my considerable surprise, something more than that: hence the three stars, which in this case you should read not as an indication of absolute quality so much as an admission that it is considerably less execrable than I had presumed.
The premise is that Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie are husband-and-wife contract killers who, as so often happens in these circumstances, find themselves in the unhappy position of having to off one another. The twist is that neither of them knows what the other one does, and their marriage is already going through a rocky patch - the film is bookended by sessions with a relationship therapist, involving some witty ambiguities about the secrets and the occasionally murderous feelings they both harbour. The revelation of their mutual deception uncovers a viper's nest of mistrust and suppressed rage, and they approach the job of killing one another with zeal.
After that, the plot settles into predictable grooves. The contrast between the bourgeois home life and the secret, hi-tech professional life is ripped straight from the Schwarzenegger vehicle True Lies; the mismatch between suburban family values and hit-man amorality was done with far more style by John Cusack in Grosse Pointe Blank; the visits to the therapist hark back to The Sopranos and Analyse This.
Given the magnitude of the stars concerned, and given that the film is on global release instead of being shown in a back-room at the NFT, I don't think I'll be betraying any secrets if I hint that by the end neither has been killed, or even maimed. And do you want to lay your head on the line and bet that the conflict puts a new spark into their marriage? Don't look at me, I'm not saying a thing one way or the other.
What I hadn't registered before I saw the film was that it was directed by Doug Liman, who directed Matt Damon in The Bourne Identity - not just the best amnesiac-with-inexplicable-combat-skills thriller ever made, but for my money one of the most efficient, genuinely exciting spy films since the early Seventies.
True, some of the action sequences stretch credulity to an uncomfortable degree - and I could have lived without Jolie's Bondish all-sex-kitten assassination bureau - and the last 45 minutes or so could do with a change of pace; but when it comes to car chases and helicopters, you couldn't be in safer hands. The culminating shoot-out in a home-furnishings store is strident and exaggerated, and the stratospheric body-count sits uncomfortably with the overall comic tone; but it is flawlessly choreographed and breathlessly paced.
What lifted Mrs & Mrs Smith above my expectations, though, was the sharp way the script plays with the idea that the Smiths' marriage is not so different from anyone else's: aren't all husbands and wives at heart assassins? So what if the Smiths are a little more literal about it? Sometimes the lines are set up a little too neatly, but they're still good lines. "There's this huge space between us and it just keeps filling up with everything we don't say to each other," Jolie tells the therapist at one point: "What's that called?" Beat. "Marriage," comes the reply. I got the sense that there was a lot more in this vein struggling to get out; alas, it's the car-chases and helicopters that sell tickets.
Of course, many people's main reason for watching this film will be Brad and Angelina, and all the stories about their on-set romance. As it happens, on screen they don't exude a great deal of chemistry; then again, they're probably pretty enough for that not to matter too much. Pitt is no Matt Damon, but then he's no Ben Affleck either; and while he moves a little too stiffly to be an utterly convincing action hero, Jolie has a pantherish grace that compensates.
Connoisseurs of witty, stylish and intelligent sex comedies may wish to know that the original Mr & Mrs Smith - the vastly underrated Hitchcock comedy of 1941, with barely a firearm in sight - is on show at the NFT next month as part of a Carole Lombard season. Meanwhile, for connoisseurs of shoot-'em-ups and Jolie's legs, instant gratification awaits.
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