“Right. Five or six years.”
It was the aggressive nature of the stories told to screenwriter Simon Kinberg by friends in couples therapy that inspired Mr. & Mrs. Smith—his MFA thesis turned half billion dollar moneymaker at the box office. The leap from the tit for tat dynamic between bickering spouses to secret lives is hardly unique, but making those hidden existences equally successful assassin careers instead of extramarital affairs certainly was. Killers need to work through issues too, especially when the question of whether they married out of love or cover story constantly tugs at their conscience. It’s a job where emotion becomes a liability and you can’t therefore blame either party’s boss for delivering the ultimatum of murdering the other or finding themselves dead instead. And after half a decade together, such a permanent end might actually prove tempting.
The project was perfectly suited to director Doug Liman‘s sensibilities after his success with The Bourne Identity. Kinberg’s script mixed that espionage action/suspense alongside a wealth of humor similar to the filmmaker’s other movies Swingers and Go. As such, the opening introduction to the titular couple (Brad Pitt‘s John and Angelina Jolie‘s Jane) becomes a fantastic bait and switch mystery behind his impulsive indifference and her stoic compulsion for control. We see it when the camera points their way opposite William Fichtner‘s disembodied voice as their therapist off-screen. John smirks and treats it like a joke while Jane rolls her eyes in frustration at the fact he takes nothing seriously. It’s no wonder that they met serendipitously in Columbia, using each other to elude the police before basing their relationship on one night of pure, sexual attraction.
We pick up five (or six) years later, when they’re bored out of their skulls in a life of domesticity neither can truly embrace. The spark thrusting them together is extinguished and both chomp at the bit waiting for their next job when not playing house with the neighbors. It just so happens that their bosses assign the same objective: a kill order for Benjamin “Tank” Danz (Adam Brody). Since their entire adrenaline-fueled, sociopathic existences rely on a competitive nature that pits them against each other to race out of the driveway every morning, discovering a competitor in the field with their target in range is an irksome revelation. Unsurprisingly, they get so caught up in destroying the other that the mark escapes. Only in their anger to learn who ruined their job do they realize the truth.
Pitt and Jolie are the epitome of high style and smug comedy because while killing the other is their one legitimate shot towards keeping their job, knowing this dull spouse who drifted away so easily is actually a top flight killer like them can’t help but turn the flame back on. This leads to many entertaining conflicts between them as each feels out where the other stands and whether they’re willing to cross the line. It’s a hilarious situation full of memorable moments such as Pitt tripping (for real) and accidentally firing his gun at her to shocked dismay or Jolie escaping their speeding car while he points at her through the back windshield with chastisement before plunging over a hill. A Spy vs. Spy game ensues that escalates forever more into insanity for better or worse.
Admittedly, I remember leaning on the side of the latter after seeing the film in theaters. Don’t get me wrong, though, I thought it was a hugely fun romp then too. There was just something about the completely cartoonish climactic shoot-out in a department store against a hundred faceless mercenaries that bored me despite being invigorated throughout everything previously. This time around I saw how Liman and Kinberg set this lawless scene up in countless other moments of implausibility. The comedy rules the day above the relationship drama and the unbridled action so where they go does stay true to this tone. It also helps that the supporting characters led by a manic Vince Vaughn as John’s BFF and partner (including pre-fame Kerry Washington, Michelle Monaghan, and Jennifer Morrison) keep it light and unpredictable.
The big story surrounding its release was always that this was the moment Hollywood’s “It” couple fell in love and I believe that hurt its legacy. No one is saying Mr. & Mrs. Smith is a masterpiece, but it did perform well with audiences and remains the type of film that’s hard to turn off when stumbling upon it randomly on cable TV. Pitt and Jolie have proven themselves A-list caliber actors with multiple accolades, but it’s their comic timing and mannerisms that I appreciate most. Liman showcases this skill throughout the film and delivers a treat that hasn’t yet grown old to me. Kinberg did try to mimic its success with This Means War to middling results, but its failure only bolsters my defense of what was achieved here. Guilty pleasure? Yes. But that’s more than okay.