July 21, 2010

Salt

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A movie review by James Berardinelli



Salt

ACTION:

United States, 2010

U.S. Release Date:

2010-07-23

Running Length:

1:35

MPAA Classification:

PG-13 (Violence)

Theatrical Aspect Ratio:

2.35:1

Cast:

Angelina Jolie, Liev Schreiber, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Daniel Olbrychski, August Diehl, Hunt Block, Andre Braugher, Olek Krupa

Director:

Phillip Noyce

Screenplay:

Kurt Wimmer

Cinematography:

Robert Elswit

Music:

James Newton Howard

U.S. Distributor:

Columbia Pictures

Subtitles:

none


Salt is more than mere seasoning; it's a full bouillabaisse comprised of bits and pieces of James Bond, The Manchurian Candidate, The Bourne Identity, TV's 24, and the Nelson DeMille novel The Charm School. What begins with a delicious appetizer, however, loses its taste by the arrival of dessert. Salt contains plenty of action; in fact, it rarely slows down, making one wonder if a better title might be Run, Angelina, Run. But the plot isn't strong enough to withstand the assault on the wall of suspension of disbelief by a gamut of increasingly preposterous stunts. There comes a point when it becomes difficult to take Salt seriously. That would be fine if this was an intentional parody of action spy thrillers, but it's not. The film's tone argues that it wants to be taken straight, and that's where a disconnect occurs.

Although the majority of Angelina Jolie's recent endeavors have been dramatic in nature, she's no stranger to high-wattage action, having appeared in the likes of Wanted, Mr. & Mrs. Smith, and a pair of outings as Lara Croft. She's capable of playing a distaff James Bond (much as her Lara Croft was a softer, sexier Indiana Jones). In fact, the biggest point of interest in Salt may be the main character's gender: How many action films do we see with a female lead? Reportedly, Tom Cruise was originally attached to Salt. His removal may have been the best thing for the production, and not only because of the actor's plunging audience appeal. With Cruise as the star, this would have been generic. Jolie adds a different dimension, and looks better in heels.

Evelyn Salt (Jolie) is one of the CIA's best and brightest. She has given up almost everything for her country. But when a Russian defector, Orlov (Daniel Olbrychski), fingers her as a KGB agent in deep cover, she finds herself being hunted not only by Agent Peabody (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a Company Internal Affairs operative, but by her partner, Ted Winter (Liev Schreiber). According to Orlov, Salt's objective is to assassinate Russian President Matyveyev (Olek Krupa), who is in the United States attending the funeral of the U.S. Vice President. Sure enough, once Salt eludes her pursuers, she heads for the cathedral where the funeral is being held, but is her goal to fulfill her mission or to find evidence to prove she has been set up?

The film's mystery element - is Salt a double-agent or a triple-agent? - remains Salt's most compelling element. Unfortunately, the answer is evident well before the movie reaches its midpoint. From then on, the movie falls into the category of pure eye candy, although with accomplished director Phillip Noyce at the helm, the action scenes are more suspenseful than they might be if choreographed by a less adept filmmaker. They are also coherent, eschewing the Paul Greengrass/Bourne approach of shaking the handheld camera so violently it's impossible to figure out what's going on. With only a couple of exceptions, Salt prefers clear action to the muddied variety.

Salt is violent - as violent as a movie can be and still earn the less restrictive PG-13 rating. We are shown brutality, torture (of the title character near the beginning, when she is held prisoner in North Korea), and death. However, since the kills are "clean" (no blood), the film manages to sneak in under the PG-13 wire. Unfortunately, this is once again an instance in which Hollywood has taken adult material and, by toning down graphic elements, turned it into teen-friendly fodder. Movies that contain inherently adult content should not be sanitized to the point where they can be shown in the "no ID required" wing of the multiplex. This process, which is rampant in Hollywood, is the reason why fans were so outraged when something similar was done to the Die Hard movies with the fourth installment of the franchise. If the content warrants an R, give it an R.

The central problem with Salt is that the spy aspects, which are by far the most intriguing elements of the movie, are shunted aside in favor of spectacular stunts and long chases. Exposition is kept to a minimum because more than a few minutes' dialogue kills the pace. Then ending is perfunctory and somewhat unsatisfying because it is obvious and predictable. One gets the sense that the movie represents a solid outline for a mini-series, but 95 minutes isn't nearly enough time to explore the possibilities hinted at by the narrative. For example, Noyce seems to want the relationship between Evelyn and her husband, Mike (August Diehl), to have real resonance, but too little of it remains in the final cut for it to come across as more than a necessary afterthought. Somewhere in Salt's DNA is a Machiavellian scheme that is bludgeoned into submission by the need to please an ADD crowd. Admittedly, Salt goes well with popcorn, but it's never filling.

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