Doing an action movie is a risky endeavor for an actor, because if you screw it up, you can really hurt your career.
—Doug Liman, commentary, Mr. and Mrs. Smith
We redid the house.
—Jane (Angelina Jolie)
“This is like a check up for us,” says John (Brad Pitt) to an unseen couples therapist at the start of Mr. and Mrs. Smith. “A chance to poke around the engine, maybe change the oil, replace a seal or two.” The camera maintains a restless two-shot on John and wife Jane (Angelina Jolie), as, commentary-tracking producer Akiva Goldsman notes, “Action movies don’t typically start this way… But we had a very conscious conversation about how this was really a romantic comedy with gunfire, as I like to say.” Adds the other producer Lucas Foster, “We experimented with all kinds of action credits sequences… and ended up with the most simple, black cards and white text, so we could start the movie in its most contained, and then, in the next frame, break it open into the expected summer grammar.”
Rewind and watch again under a second commentary track by director Doug Liman and credited screenwriter Simon Kinberg (reportedly the film went through multiple drafts, with rumors of numbers as high as 50). Says Kinberg as he watches this same first scene in the therapist’s office: “It feels like a real bad marriage, actually, because you have two veritable strangers who have never met before and who were on the other side of the world just the day before, having to sit next to each other and talk about their personal problems.” Indeed, the characters barely look at one another and the mood is awkward. Little did anyone know on this first day of shooting how this pairing would change the shape of tabloids for months to come.
Rewind once more and listen to yet another commentary track, by editor Michael Tronick and production designer Jeff Mann, with visual effects supervisor Kevin Elam edited in separately. Mann also recalls the actors’ first day story, from a slightly different angle, “It’s interesting, Mike’s choice editorially kind of throws you right into that feeling, without a big setup.”
All three commentaries manage this sort of layering, discussing technical and narrative issues as they collide or intersect. They also reveal intriguing friendly tensions, as, for instance, when Liman recalls turning down the script the first time he read it (while shooting The Bourne Identity) and Kinberg inserts that he agreed to do it once he learned Pitt was attached, even though “the words weren’t entirely that different.” Shifting gears, they discuss their good fortune with casting. As Kinberg puts it, “You can sustain a whole of two people having a fairly boring marital conversation because the two people are so just, dynamic, and impossible to take your eyes off of.” Oh that again.
In fact, they are mesmerizing to watch (even in the DVD’s very regular extras, three deleted scenes and Fox Movie Channel’s promotional “Making a Scene”). Pitt especially. Here he dances not only with Jolie (Liman remembers that their first dance scene made Pitt feel self-conscious, because he’s “from the Midwest”), but also with household objects, like china cups and coat racks. More reminiscent of Fred Astaire than James Bond, John’s casually precise athleticism and stuttering, brain-wheels-turning efforts to see what so bothers his wife about him are oddly enchanting. Not only that, but, as Goldsman notes, “Brad’s kind of a flawless comedian.”
All this charm goes a long way toward making you forgive the film’s shortcomings, including its sparring husband-wife plot. As Jane and John live out what sometimes seems a doubled version of The Bourne Identity, they seek to resolve to their fractured selves. Flashbacks grant only a rudimentary “relationship,” to get straightaway to the sensational squabbling: they first meet in a tropical hotel as covert killers and never tell one another about their secret identities (which remain “secret” despite their instantly fierce competitiveness at a fairground shooting booth; as Foster suggests, following several more mundane competitions, “They’re both Type A and are meant for each other”).
Over five (or six—John can’t get the number straight) years of marriage, equally workaholic John and Jane grow estranged, though it only reaches crisis status when they are assigned to kill one another. This premise leads to frequently smart use of multi-generic conventions. Finding the thematic similarities between romantic comedies and action pictures—delight in chaos, desire for order—Mr. & Mrs. Smith proceeds to smash these genres together so both are deconstructed, reassembled, and really, more interesting for the wear and tear.
Similarly damaged and anxious, John and Jane pretend to be happily married (she buys dreadful draperies, he doesn’t notice she’s added peas to the dinner menu) even as they live wholly separate lives: they leave for work in their own vehicles, hide their elaborate arsenals from one another. (Still, they are alike: as Jane teeters ever so assuredly on a precarious chair while arranging those draperies, Goldsman comments, “It’s one of the things I regret we never did more of, it’s like two superheroes at home using their superhero powers.”) They spend romantic-comedy time complaining to their friends, they spend action-movie time immersing themselves in their work.
In their clandestine lives, both are frankly sensational. Jane dons a dominatrix disguise in order to take out her target, up close (“Have you been selling big guns to bad people?” she asks, standing over doggy-boy just before she snaps his thick neck). John goes the scruffier route, posing as a rowdy drunk of a card player to get similarly near to his assignment, pushing back from the table just in time to take out a passel of grizzly but suddenly off-guard players; he does it efficiently and spectacularly, with loud fast guns.
As they’re both assigned the same job (to assassinate nebbishy Adam Brody), they live essentially parallel lives: she works with Angela Basset, he with Keith David; her best friend is Kerry Washington, his is Vince Vaughn (who offers his usual mush-mouthed pithiness, as in, “You’re Macys and Gimbels, you would be whatever channel against the We channel”). Such conventions aside, the movie is smart about the details, specifically as it reconsiders the consumer-culture markers of identity. When Jane and John learn of their mutual deceit and begin a little war against one another, they bring to bear all their expert equipment (shells, knives, and automatic weapons), and take their contracts on each other as licenses to get even. Feeling righteous and not a little irritated that they’ve been so duped, they eagerly scheme and argue. A protracted shootout in the house has them trading married-couple japes (“Are you still alive, honey?”) while checking around corners with mirrors and aiming shoulder-mounted grenade launchers. It’s a cute way at the usual rom-com scene where the couple must fight to make up.
Exploring John and Jane’s dented, tentative selves, the film gets to dispense with the glam stuff—for the most part, anyway. It’s hard to avoid the requisite close-ups of Jolie’s famous assets. Still, the characters keep coming. While Jane’s sense of order inspires John to call her “anal,” his tendency to rely on “instinct” makes his scruffy approach leads to unexpected amusements. Deft and Buster Keatonish, John’s sweet physical comedy suggests that inside this clever-enough movie lies yet another one, with a peculiarly buoyant sense of art-making along with all the convention-cracking.