'Mr. & Mrs. Smith' Enter Comedy Heaven; 'High Tension' Just Anemic, By Kurt Loder

Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie sparkle in a comic jewel; French import takes a dull knife to the slasher genre.

"Mr. & Mrs. Smith": The Perfect Perfect Couple

"Mr. & Mrs. Smith" is three different kinds of pretty great movie. It's an action film in which the high-powered mayhem (gunfire, slugfests, rocket bursts, roaring explosions) virtually never lets up; and yet there's no testosterone overload — the picture's endless arsenal of technoid weaponry is almost a running gag. The movie is also a terrifically funny comedy built on the glittering back-and-forth between the two leads — the dialogue really sparkles. And it's a love story that arises naturally out of their testy relationship without any gimmicky coaxing from the script.

John and Jane Smith (Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, perfect together) are a married couple who are having problems: the zip has gone out of their relationship. We meet them, in a tight two-shot, looking straight into the camera, in the office of a marriage counselor. He asks them how long they've been together. "Five years," says John. "Six," says Jane, with a not-again roll of her eyes. "How often do you have sex?" the counselor asks. There's an awkward pause. Jane says, "I don't understand the question."

John and Jane have each been keeping a secret: they're both high-level assassins working for rival spy agencies. Before he leaves their big white suburban house for work in the morning, John stops by the backyard tool shed where he keeps his impressive array of armaments, and loads up for that day's job. While he's doing this, Jane is in the kitchen pushing a button that rolls out trays full of guns and knives from her futuristic oven. For a typical assignment, she dons a gleaming black dominatrix outfit to keep an appointment with an S&M-loving bad guy in a high-rise hotel; their session comes to a surprise end when she neatly snaps his neck. (Her subsequent escape, rappelling down the side of the skyscraper, is one of the movie's several spectacular stunts.)

When John and Jane are separately assigned to take out an operative of mysterious importance called "The Tank" (the decidedly un-tank-like Adam Brody, of "The O.C."), they finally cross paths. Later, after they've learned the truth about one another but are trying not to let on, there's a deftly orchestrated scene in their dining room, amid carving knives and suspect wine, that's like a comedic ballet of paranoia and mistrust. Soon they're stalking each other through the kitchen and corridors of their home, raking the rooms with gunfire and blowing huge holes in the walls, all the while laying down a non-stop barrage of laconic wisecracks and sizzling put-downs.

Clearly, this marriage is in trouble. "You obviously want me dead," John tells Jane, "and I'm less and less concerned about your well-being." His colleague, Eddie (Vince Vaughn, a scream as always), tells him to look on the bright side: "So it was a six-year stakeout — mission accomplished!" With their big secrets out of the way, John and Jane decide to come clean with each other about a number of other things.

"I wasn't in the Peace Corps," she confesses.

"I didn't go to M.I.T.," he admits.

"I'm Jewish," she says.

"Mr. and Mrs. Smith" is expertly entertaining on several levels. The director, Doug Liman, broke through with the small, sharp comedy, "Swingers" in 1996, and branched out in 2002 with the big action-adventure hit "The Bourne Identity." Here, he brings his talents for both character delineation and blockbuster logistics to a jewel of a script (by Simon Kinberg), and he does gratifying justice to its every elegant aspect.

But what really revs up the movie and launches it into comedy heaven are the performances of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. Their chemistry, both verbal and physical, is exhilarating. (The priceless scene in which they dance a hostile tango on a crowded dance floor is a small masterpiece of screwball invention.) Neither of them has ever been better than they are in this movie. And not a lot of movies have been as sleekly uproarious as this one.

"High Tension": Low Blood Pressure

You'd figure that any slasher movie that got underway with a guy having sex with a severed head might be a slasher movie with something new on its mind. But no. "High Tension" isn't just a slasher movie; it's a "tribute" to American slasher movies of the 1970s and early '80s. And like tribute bands and tribute albums, this low-budget French quickie, directed by Alexandre Aja, is essentially a footnote to the originals. Miss it, and you miss nothing.

Even the most perfunctory of the classic slasher flicks, like "Twitch of the Death Nerve" (1971) and "Black Christmas" (1974), took a stab, so to speak, at providing their knife-wielding berserkers with some kind of backstory to explain their grisly actions. In "Halloween" (1978), the hockey-masked Michael Myers is an escaped psycho returning to his unfondly remembered hometown. In "Friday the 13th" (1980), the hulking Jason Voorhees has apparently returned to Camp Crystal Lake to avenge himself on the kind of inattentive sexpot counselors who allowed him to drown 25 years earlier. And in "A Nightmare on Elm Street" (1984), the razor-fingered child molester Freddy Krueger haunts the dreams of the kids whose parents once caught him and burned him alive. As unlikely as such motivations may be, they're enough: We understand why these guys are pissed.

"High Tension," on the other hand, is simply a checklist of familiar gore effects pasted onto an unusually uninvolving story. (Well, it's not as bad as it seems to be for most of the movie, I suppose — there's a trick ending that's supposed to yank the plot elements into clever alignment; still, for most of the movie, it seems pretty bad.)

Two young college friends, Marie (Cécile de France, of "Around the World in 80 Days") and Alexia (the monomial Maïwenn) are driving through the south of France as the movie opens, on their way to the remote farmhouse of Alexia's parents, where they intend to study for their finals. Almost immediately, they start doing classically dumb things, like pulling off the road and running out into a dark spooky cornfield for no believable reason, then traipsing back to their car again after nothing happens. There's also the traditional ration of skin. Alex takes a shower, and we get to watch. Marie has been watching, too, and is moved to return to her room for a bit of self-fondling. We're still watching.

Then a big guy in a greasy jumpsuit walks into the house and starts killing everybody: hack, slash, boom — just like that. He overlooks Marie, who's hidden under a bed, but he catches Alex and drags her outside to his battered old panel truck and locks her in the back. Then he drives off — unaware that Marie has managed to slip into the back of the truck, too ... somehow. There follows an axe murder at a roadside gas station, and an interlude at a greenhouse way out in a forest (what?), where someone is bloodily beaten with a big wooden stake wrapped in barbed wire. Then, with witless inevitability, a chainsaw is loudly cranked up. And so on.

The trick ending is kind of clever, I suppose, especially if you didn't see the Robert De Niro quasi-slasher movie "Hide and Seek" earlier this year. And especially if you don't mind a gaping plot hole big enough to drive whoever's truck that really is right through it. The movie's only 85 minutes long, but that's 85 minutes you might need some day, for something more engrossing than this. Sorting socks, maybe.