Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action.
Runtime: 1oo min.
Directed by: Philp Noyce
Written by: Kurt Wimmer
Starring: Angelina Jolie, Liev Schrieber, Chiwetel Ejofor, Daniel Olbryski, August Diehl
Philip Noyce’s Salt is a whirling wind-up toy of an action movie. Inexplicably, this doesn’t actually make it all that interesting to watch.
Angelina Jolie is in top physical and dramatic shape as the title character, leaping, running, and commando rolling through an ever twisting corridor of dangers, surprises and thrills. She’s not alone either, bolstered on all sides by dynamic performers like Chiwetel Ejofor and Liev Schrieber, and urged along by James Newton Howard’s absorbing score.
The story is essentially a series of chase scenes and character reveals, dredging up and dusting off that most hearty of spy-movie conventions, the Russian sleeper agent. Salt is deliriously paced and thoughtfully directed, and still somehow manages to come off as a second-rate thriller.
All of the pieces are here, and yet, for all of its technical acumen, Salt never really becomes engaging. I wanted to like it, but in the end, felt very little connection or investment to anything happening up on the screen.
The reason for this is that while the film begins with a somewhat plausible conceit, wrapped up in conspiracy theorizing that stretches back all the way to Lee Harvey Oswald, it quickly descends into the kind of superhero implausibility that we would expect in an X-Men picture, with less explanation and more absurdity. Despite this refusal to play by the natural order of things, Salt stubbornly insists on treating the proceedings with a near deadly seriousness. It plays like The Bourne Identity but thinks it’s JFK.
Noyce, a great Australian director who has given us such wonderful films as Rabbit Proof Fence and the Michael Caine spy thriller The Quiet American, does a terrific job of keeping Salt full of forward movement and narrative nimbleness. He folds a romantic back-story into the chase structure of the film so effortlessly that it becomes as immediate and relevant as the action scenes. There’s one of those tense pre-assassination scenes in the film where all the usual suspects stand around looking nervous and scanning the crowd for suspects. Noyce creates a deliberate escalation of suspense, and then Evelyn shows up on the scene and throws the audience a curve ball.
Jolie as Evelyn deserves most of the film’s accolades though, as she is at the center of every scene, every idea, and every emotional revelation. This isn’t just ‘The Fugitive’ with a sexy pout; Jolie makes Evelyn a remarkably resilient and simultaneously fragile woman, who resists the script’s urge to transform her into Wonder Woman or The Black Widow.
There are subtle choices here that she makes which move her away from the object of attraction she represented in Tomb Raider, and define Salt the character as an individual and not merely a psychological extension of Jolie herself. By the end, though, the film has come full circle and we learn it is the kind of origin story that would be right at home in Marvel; out of the closure springs a new beginning.
This is the curious thing about Salt. It works hard to set-up a strong character and an intriguing speculative fiction for its background, but then develops in small bursts, episodically disrupting any cohesion that might have been. It plays havoc with the film’s sense of progression. I thought it was on the verge of ending three separate times, only to spin off again into a new, unlikely wrinkle.
For a while, this is compelling and Jolie keeps Salt a constantly changing presence in our minds; we really don’t know if she’s friend or foe, and even more complex, if she is foe as defined by her cohorts, is she necessarily playing for the wrong side? Kurt Wimmer is responsible for the script, and it took me a few moments to recognize his name, but when I finally did, his contribution makes sense.
Wimmer was the writer and director of 2002’s Equilibrium, a ludicrously over–the-top B movie sci-fi tale with Christian Bale playing a turbo-charged thought policeman who regains his soul and unleashes his particular brand of martial punishment—tagged Gun-kata—on the dystopic government who employs him. That movie too was just a wind-up toy, but it did its job; it wound you up and kept you viscerally entertained, even when you were hanging at the very precipice of logic and reason. The difference between that one and Salt is that the tone supported the wild acrobatics and distortions of natural law. Here, Noyce is focusing on making a very no- nonsense spy adventure, something more in the vein of his 90’s thriller The Saint than a Modesty Blaise-esque ballet of destruction.
Last week, I heard from several people who thought Nolan’s Inception was a visually accomplished movie, but that it wasn’t emotionally engaging to them and the characters functioned mostly like stand-ins. On that count, I didn’t share their perspective, but now seeing Salt, I know how they feel.
This is a well-constructed movie, with more than enough clever thrills and event to satisfy an action fan at the most basic level. But, it teases us with a story, and suggests within its funny book construct, a character who could have been brilliant as the lead in a Carol Reed espionage flick or even a Hitchcock globe trotter. Unfortunately, the film she finds herself in is a modest popcorn muncher with no greater ambition than turning Jolie into the live-action equivalent of that dexterious amphibian from the old Atari game Frogger. She hops, leaps and dodges danger, only to get to the other side of the movie and realize she’s gonna have to do it all over again.