'Til Tabloids Do Us Part; Gallic Gorefest Included
By Fernando F. Croce

The idea of Mr. and Mrs. Smith as a film is beside the point to the folks for whom it will primarily come as The Movie That Brought Brad and Angelina Together -- the folks who read Us Magazine as the Holy Writ and, inevitably, catapult this kind of crap to the top of the box-office. Doug Liman's screwball capper isn't a remake of the 1941 Hitchcock comedy of the same name, so movie buffs can mop their foreheads in relief, not that Pitt and La Jolie are fashioned as the new millennium's Robert Montgomery and Carole Lombard; if anything, the panting media attention following the who-stole-who scandal around the production leans more toward the Burton-Taylor grounds. If only their vehicle had the verve and wit of Losey's Boom! -- Mr. and Mrs. Smith is synthetic, vacuous starfuck-glitter bound to launch some theorizing on the nature of movie stardom, probably as a clandestine way of wringing some interest out of it. The story is Prizzi's Honor refried, or a two-sided True Lies, if you will: two professional killers who lead a peaceful married life, each clueless to the other's secret lives. The taming (neutering) nature of domestic existence was already explored in The Incredibles, whose digit-toon clan also displayed more emotion than all of Brangelina's dueling close-ups.

The meet-cute gets located in Colombia, where Pitt and Jolie, given the appropriately nondescript titles of John and Jane, pose as a couple to evade Hollywood's standard portrayal of Latin American nations. One night of hot humping joins these two carnal creatures, and, "five or six years later," they're hitched, complete with lavish suburban castle, white picket fences, and his-and-hers automobiles. Yet marriage is on the rocks, they moan to an off-screen counselor; the curtains don't go with the sofa, but are they keeping anything else from each other? Oh, just the whole assassin-for-hire thing -- "people need killin'," so Pitt's business is a rundown hit-man firm, kinda like a used-car rental meekly presided over by the director's Swingers bud, momma's-boy Vince Vaughn, while Jolie's far sleeker operation is a killer-babe conglomerate right out of Charlie's Angels. He sneaks out to annihilate a table of cockney bridge-players, she dons dominatrix garb (yowza! is in order) to snap her target's neck, and they are back home in time for a housewarming at a neighbor's, she still in leather boots. It's only a matter of time for their little secrets to be forced out into the open as a mutually botched rubout lands each in the other's hit-list, which ends up working better than any professional help in bringing the spark back to their stalled matrimony.

Both Mr. and Mrs. keep entire deadly arsenals stashed around the house, and the centerpiece demolition job sprays the kitchen with bullets, segues into drag-out rumble and culminates in Mexican standoff and, of course, no less strenuous make-up sex. There's the germ of profound satire in staging their final shootout in a home-supply store amid the mannequin evocations of domestic life, but the film is far too satisfied with its own insouciance to dismantle the foundations of an institution (hence, of society) the way Danny DeVito did in his sardonic marital acidfest The War of the Roses. The bouts may leave their bourgeois decorum in ashes, yet the film's tweaking is toothless because the characters' feelings for each other are puddle-deep even in their "irony," all the better to focus on writer Simon Kinberg's Noel-Coward-via-Bruckheimer wit ("Your aim is as bad as your cooking, sweetheart!") and Liman's hack nimbleness, who by now, after Go and The Bourne Identity, has become the poet of the car chase. Less thought has been given to the human beings dodging the bullets, though in this kind of megastar-package it's up to the actors to animate the puppets, or at least make the shit smell better -- Pitt's deadpan stolidity and Jolie's tigress haughtiness are firmly in place, gorgeous and utterly unconnected from each other. They may be an item in real-life, but on screen they're fucking themselves.

*

As if to prove that, pace Après vous..., French cinema isn't all subtlety and delicacy, Alexandre Aja's Gallic gorefest High Tension finally comes to town, two years after its original release, trimmed and half-dubbed in the process. Still, it is a pungent little item, more deliberately loathsome than Mr. and Mrs. Smith, and rather more interesting in its exploitative confusion. The subversive-political richness of the Romero-Hooper-Craven '70s horror wave has always been more appreciated overseas than in native soil, so it's no surprise to see an Euro-pastiche cramming every chainsaw trope into a mean, lean genre exercise that aims to outdo its forefathers in bare-bones viciousness. Iconography is apparently everything to Aja, no character-building needed: Cécile de France, shorn gamine and stuffed into a sweaty tank-top, is a "final girl" as seen by Carol Clover, and her grunting nemesis, decked in soiled butcher-shop overalls, cap, and only partially glimpsed, might as be an unbilled Neil Young circa Year of the Horse. Actually, it's Philippe Nahon, Gaspar Noé's stand-in for the dregs of humanity, first heard slobbering from some oral nookie with a severed head, and moments later coming a-knockin' to the isolated farmhouse of de France's college pal (Maïwenn Le Besco) for the slaughter.

The "redneck" (dubbing's term, not mine) villain quickly dispatches the entire family, including the dog and the tyke (still in miniature cowboy suit, natch), and drags bound and tied Le Besco to his repellent van, with the pixie behind him. The look is the same industrial grime as the odious Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake, and, accordingly, the spilled viscera is front and center -- decapitation by furniture, ax to the chest, medieval weapons improvised out of hunks of wood and barbed wire, power tools slicing through windshields and torsos, and Lord knows what else was sliced to get the R-rating. The director's sadistic grip is muddied by a mystifying blur of gloating brutality and repressed sexuality: de France spots Le Besco showering outside before jumping in bed to release the lesbian tension, and Aja intercuts the clit-rubbing with the maniac's ominous approach on the road. Is the film attacking her lesbianism or her suppression of it? Is Aja puritanical reactionary or raging-phallocentrism critic? Or, for that matter, a slimy poseur with grandiose (rather than grindhouse) pretensions? A genuine endurance test, High Tension ultimately bites its own ass with a Shyamalan-dopey gotcha! twist that, meant to queasily corkscrew the narrative, instead makes mincemeat out of everything before it. Aja has already snatched the upcoming The Hills Have Eyes remake, and I'm still not sure whether he's the best or worst person for the job.


Reviewed June 16, 2005.

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