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Donald Glover and Maya Erskine, lying on the floor, lean in to kiss in Mr. & Mrs. Smith Photo: David Lee/Prime Video

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If we have to recycle old IP, Mr. & Mrs. Smith is the way to do it

Donald Glover flips the married-spies conceit into something intimate and contemporary

Oli Welsh is senior editor, U.K., providing news, analysis, and criticism of film, TV, and games. He has been covering the business & culture of video games for two decades.

Have you watched Mr. & Mrs. Smith, the 2005 Brad-and-Angelina action comedy, recently? Like, actually watched it, not just let your nostalgic memories of it play in your head. Mr. & Mrs. Smith was at the center of pop culture in the mid-aughts for a lot of reasons that had nothing to do with the actual movie, and a few that did: It’s sexy fun with massive stars, and director Doug Liman knows how to put together a good action scene. The elevator pitch — two professional assassins are married to each other, but don’t know about the other’s job — is a good one.

But right now, in 2024, it’s almost unwatchably strange. It’s one of those not-that-old movies that are so specific to their time they seem to have aged beyond their years. The bitter, marriage-is-hell humor lands wrong. The two leads look hot but sort of unreal, like they’re the premature product of de-aging technology. There are some iffy digital shots, and the cinematography and camera work — all handheld, all high-contrast, all orange and teal, all the time — are extremely 2005. It’s just not a film that plays anymore, and although it was a huge hit and the eye of a tabloid storm, it’s not much talked about today.

Which makes it an odd choice to be adapted into a Prime Video streaming series. Or maybe it doesn’t. Maybe, in fact, the choice by star Donald Glover and co-creator Francesca Sloane is a genius one.

In the current phase of the streaming wars (a phase we might be on the precipice of leaving behind, but that’s another story), the studios have not been shaken in their belief that any level of intellectual property name recognition is better than none, and creatives have been barraged with invitations to rework this or that old movie. Very rarely, as in the improbable success of Noah Hawley’s Fargo, an anthology series made in the spirit of the Coen brothers’ cinematic masterpiece, this has worked. More often it has not. Sometimes, the misbegotten results have at least been interesting, like Amazon’s curious reinterpretation of Dead Ringers. Sometimes, as in the case of the uninspired retread of Fatal Attraction, they have been both pointless and dull.

Maya Erskine looks at a laptop while Donald Glover studies a document in a fancy study in Mr. & Mrs. Smith Photo: David Lee/Prime Video

Glover and Sloane’s inspired choice was to select a movie from the studios’ menu that is famous but unsophisticated and not especially beloved, with a dated iconography that could easily be junked and a strong concept that could be stripped to its core and rebuilt completely from scratch. This is exactly what they’ve done, creating a delightful series that is almost the inverse of its inspiration, while sharing its core values: It’s funny, sexy, glossy, and exciting, and built around the chemistry of its two leads.

The setup is markedly different. Rather than rival assassins who got hitched by accident, Glover and Maya Erskine’s John and Jane Smith have been purposefully paired up by the same shadowy employer, shedding their previous lives to begin a new one together. Where Pitt and Jolie begin the film as flawless pros trapped in domestic tedium, Glover and Erskine are awkward, hesitant newbies exploring their dangerous new profession and budding relationship together.

This sets up a show that is a lightly spiced, well-observed take on contemporary work and relationships with a side order of covert-ops hijinks. It might take viewers a couple of episodes to adjust to Mr. & Mrs. Smith’s unique world. It’s intimate and chatty, with a casual approach to the action stuff that isn’t concerned with realism or plausibility, and constantly lowers the dramatic temperature and the stakes, even as the Smiths get involved in increasingly outlandish mission-of-the-week scenarios. It’s a cool, easygoing relationship dramedy about people who just happen to be elite contract agents (but also gig workers, kind of). That’s not to say it doesn’t deliver thrills — there are some close scrapes, and one later episode set on Lake Como has an outstanding protracted chase scene — but it’s easy to tell where Glover and Sloane’s interest really lies: The action is as broad-brush and goofy as the Smiths’ dialogue is plausible, intricate, and nifty in its detail.

Parker Posey smiles and makes a love heart shape with her hands in a dark study in Mr. & Mrs. Smith Photo: David Lee/Prime Video
Ron Perlman looks sad in a yellow T-shirt at a candlelit dinner table at twilight in Mr. & Mrs. Smith Photo: David Lee/Prime Video

Mr. & Mrs. Smith — unlike the cinematically ambitious Fargo show, for example, which Sloane worked on, as well as contributing to Glover’s Atlanta — is also under no illusions about what medium it belongs to. This is very much a TV show. It has slick, aspirational visuals, with lovely location shoots around New York and Europe, handsome architecture, and cool fashion (Glover’s looks are on point). But the scale is small, and the 40-minute episodes are tight, discrete, satisfying short stories. Each one moves the Smiths’ relationship on while pairing them with a string of one-off guest stars, often as the couple’s mission target. It’s a murderer’s row of iconic actors: John Turturro, Sharon Horgan, Parker Posey, Ron Perlman, Sarah Paulson, Paul Dano, Michaela Coel, and more. Perlman is magnificent as a mournful, childish oligarch with a killer Hitler joke, while Paulson provides a savagely accurate parody of a couples therapist.

This is just a great TV format, and in theory Mr. & Mrs. Smith could run forever like this; it’s reminiscent of Poker Face in the way it seeks to rehabilitate old-school case-of-the-week TV. Glover, however, likes to play games with form, as with Altanta — albeit to a much less experimental extent in this case. Mr. & Mrs. Smith is only a few episodes old before it starts to break its own format. It’s cunningly done, but it perhaps doesn’t leave Glover and Sloane with a lot of room to maneuver in a potential second season.

Perhaps, though, that’s because Mr. & Mrs. Smith’s primary motivator is John and Jane’s relationship, and it’s essential to the drama that this keeps moving forward. Glover and Erskine are simply irresistible: likable, simultaneously spiky and smooth, damaged but competent (up to a point), and very plausibly into each other. Their scenes together radiate with the comfortingly bitchy intimacy of two people who are inseparable partners in absolutely everything, and when things go wrong between them, the show’s insouciant surface cracks enough to expose real hurt.

Mr. & Mrs. Smith is a fun bit of escapism wrapped around a complex, warm, and relatable love story. Glover and Sloane made something new and refreshing out of a movie that is past its sell-by date. If we’re only allowed to watch new things based on other, older things, we’ll be lucky if a fraction of them are made with as much wit and creativity as this.

Mr. & Mrs. Smith is streaming now on Prime Video.