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Honey, let’s talk: Jolie in Mr. and Mrs. Smith.

Is That a Gun in Your Pocket?
By Shawn Stone

Mr. and Mrs. Smith

Directed by Doug Liman

Don’t let the explosion- filled ads fool you: Mr. and Mrs. Smith is a romantic comedy. The film begins with its overly guarded, squirmy lead characters at a marriage counselor, inadvertently (and comically) revealing how little they know about each other—and how much they’re annoyed with each other. Don’t worry, though, action fans, because the film eventually becomes as violent and explosive as the red-blooded Jerry Bruckheimer flick. Only a whole lot smarter.

Mr. and Mrs. Smith is a very funny romantic comedy, too, primarily because of the over-the-top violence. The action-film trappings give director Doug Liman license to revel in the black-hearted comedy of a husband and wife letting loose their long-term, pent-up loathing for each other; the fact that it’s a pair of extremely pretty movie stars in the roles only adds to the fun. And Liman, who began his career with Swingers, knows all about the contempt between the sexes.

You’ve probably heard the setup: Husband and wife assassins aren’t aware that they share the same profession. Brad Pitt is John Smith; Angelina Jolie is Jane Smith. Both work for multinational assassination corporations, each brightly organized along gender and class lines: Pitt’s offices are grungy, and his coworker is shambling, eternal adolescent Eddie (Vince Vaughn); Jolie works in the Woolworth Building alongside a phalanx of beautifully dressed and coiffed young women (including Kerry Washington and Stephanie March).

Meanwhile, in their oversized, too-expensive, modern suburban palace, Mr. and Mrs. Smith play out the alternating boredom and barely concealed contempt of a couple who’ve been together five or six years and seemingly have nothing in common. The film takes its time with the details of their unhappy life, the better to appreciate what happens when an unhappy couple who feel like killing each other are actually capable of killing each other.

When the plot mechanics finally bring them into conflict, the emotions are as potentially lethal as the bullets. It’s the film’s best joke that these two can only talk honestly with each other when they start trying to kill each other.

Now, I neither know nor care if Pitt and Jolie are really banging each other off-screen, but their on-film chemistry is real and hugely enjoyable. This is probably because their screen styles balance each other out. Often, Pitt is the dullest actor in film—especially when paired with similarly low-key performers. Conversely, Jolie is often, well, just too goddamned much. When paired with similarly nostril-flaring actors like Antonio Banderas, Jolie is driven to overact to the point of unwatchability. Together, however, he pushes a little harder, and she pulls back a bit. I don’t care if they live happily ever after in real life, but they ought to make beautiful music on screen again.

Moving On

Walk on Water

Directed by Eytan Fox

A political thriller of sorts from Israel that gains in power as it goes along, Walk on Water is about a high- ranking operative with Mossad who is reassigned to track and kill a Nazi war criminal. As heavily symbolic as its title would suggest, the film is also about the schisms between Germans and Jews, Jews and Arabs, gays and straights, and old and young. That’s a lot of strife for one movie, yet thanks to the elegant symmetry of the script and director Eytan Fox’s sensitive, committed direction, Walk on Water overcomes an overly humanitarian agenda to unfold an engrossing tale of denial, guilt, and redemption. Call it a moral thriller.

The operative is Eyal (Lior Ashkenazi), whom we first see using a hypodermic to assassinate an Arab man traveling with his wife and child. As gripping as this opening sequence is, the tone is meditative and the cinematography is moody. Back home in Tel Aviv, Eytal finds his wife has committed suicide. By outward appearances, he’s barely ruffled, but his father, a survivor of the final solution, knows better, and he puts Eyal on his own pet cause, the assassination of the Nazi, who may have left Argentina. Eyal, like the other agents of his generation, is far too concerned about Arab terrorism to want to waste his deadly talents on an old man who is about to croak anyway (“I want to get him before God does,” says his father), but as luck would have it, the Nazi’s granddaughter, Pia (Caroline Peters), is living on a kibbutz in Israel and her brother Axel (Knut Berger) is flying in from Germany to visit her. Eytal goes undercover as the tour guide whom Pia hires for Axel. Reluctantly, he insinuates himself into the lives of the sister and brother in the hope that one of them will reveal the whereabouts of the grandfather. The siblings respond to his interest in them with trusting enthusiasm.

Though the director’s use of music is obvious and intrusive (Eyal listens to Bruce Springsteen, Axel cares only for divas) almost every other element is artfully subdued. Ashkenazi (who resembles a handsomer Clive Owen, but with less charisma) is bluntly effective, especially when Eyal takes on some goons in a Berlin subway. But it’s Berger as the gay and gently vivacious Axel who is the movie’s standout. Remarkably loving to just about everybody, Axel has an effect on the macho and repressed Eyal, even though the operative is disgusted by Axel’s lifestyle and yuppie humanism. Both men are striving to follow their conscience, though in vastly different ways, and their friendship, which evolves at the most beautiful places in the Holy Land (such as the hypnotically calm Sea of Galilee) leads to a series of events that sets both men free from the past. Forget the unfortunate title (and the final coda that patly ties into it). There’s integrity to this intrigue.

—Ann Morrow

Killing Time at Uday’s

Gunner Palace

Directed by Petra Epperlin and Michael Tucker

Meandering, messily edited, and slowed by interludes of boring filler, Gunner Palace impacts like a stealth bomb, presenting an unfiltered and discomforting view of the American experience in Iraq. Shot before the capture of Sadaam Hussein, the film follows the members of a field artillery unit as they perform their rotations—as policemen, social workers, and counter-espionage agents—amid a civilian population. That the filmmakers (Petra Epperlin and Michael Tucker) are practically amateurs is the best thing about their tag-along footage: Shot without fanfare over several months in 2003, these interviews with average soldiers give them a chance to speak for themselves without big-media spin doctoring or slick packaging. The filmmakers are resolutely non-judgmental, and the only flourish is the optimistic voice-over by Donald Rumsfeld, which dates the action while providing an ironic counterpoint to the sinking quagmire that the unit seems to be stuck in. “They can’t grip it,” says a private of the folks back home. “No one can, unless they come here.” Which is pretty much the point of the film, and it’s an important one.

One of Uday Hussein’s “party palaces,” Gunner Palace serves as the troop’s HQ, rec area and safety zone. The mansion’s garish excess stands in contrast to the poverty of its surroundings in Baghdad, where anti-U.S. graffiti is routinely removed by patrols. Most of the grunts have little understanding of why they are there. Yet their dedication to duty is admirable, even though the hero of “the new army” appears to be Johnny Knoxville rather than John Wayne. One hard-partying private first class in particular seems to think he’s in a video game, while a posse of hardcore rappers liken the action to the mean streets of urban America. All the soldiers live in constant fear of IEDs (improvised exploding devices), to the point where a plastic bag stuck to a curb will stop a patrol in its tracks. Infrared-lit night raids have mixed success; at one point, it seems innocent people are being sent to prison; another raid turns up a major stash of weapons and cash. What seems to be most dispiriting for the soldiers, however, isn’t the danger, but the feeling that they’ve been forgotten by the American public—except for the occasional bomb blast to zip up the nightly news. Nearly two years later, almost nothing has changed, making this thought-roiling documentary even more perturbing.

—Ann Morrow

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