A good number of spy/espionage action thrillers have come out in recent years and I have to say that the genre is beginning to look a bit stale. I mean how many Jason Bourne ripoffs do we need to see in shaky cam where the hero jumps through a window and cars flip over him? I miss the reality grounded, Cold War, geopolitical thrillers that depended on the hero being a cunning bastard and having to outfox his opponent rather than using the latest technology and super acrobatics to accomplish his mission. Spy movies these days seem to be less about story and current events than video game thrills and eye candy.

Salt was not a film I was very much looking forward to seeing. The trailer didn’t completely sell me and it looked just like the kind of unappealing spy movie that I described above. Besides, I seem to remember Salt being pushed from an earlier date, which is usually a foreboding sign that the film might suck and the studio has no faith in its product. However, I can happily say that most of my reservations about this film are unfounded and Salt, although not a great movie, is an entertaining summer escape movie directed by one of my favorite action thriller directors, Phillip Noyce (Clear and Present Danger, The Quiet American, Rabbit-Proof Fence, and Dead Calm).

Angelina Jolie is Evelyn Salt. The movie opens in North Korea two years ago where we find Salt in a North Korean prison being interrogated and accused of being a spy. Through the efforts of the U.S. government, she ends up getting released. We forward to the present, where Salt is working as an officer for the CIA. One of her CIA colleagues is Ted Winter (Liev Schreiber), who was involved in getting her out of North Korea. The story establishes the characters and premise immediately and we’re soon introduced to a Russian defector who contacts the CIA to impart some important information. Salt is sent in to question the man and see whether he’s bullshitting or not. Through the course of questioning, the man finally accuses Salt of being a Russian spy. Without going into details, he reaches his conclusion in such a way that Salt’s CIA colleagues begin to suspect the Russian might be right. Realizing this, Salt makes for an escape as she tries to clear her name. The question throughout the movie is whether or not Salt is really a Russian spy.

Say whatever you want about Angelina Jolie and her giant-ass lips and penchant for adopting clans of children, but I give that woman a shitload of credit for putting every ounce of effort in all the roles she plays. Some of her films I have not liked (i.e. Tomb Raider, Beyond Borders, Taking Lives, etc.), but even in those she gives it her all. Jolie has developed a little niche for herself lately doing spy action movies (i.e. Wanted, Mr. & Mrs. Smith) and she stated recently that she much enjoys making these kind of movies. I say the more power to her. With her exotic looks and ability to look cold and bitchy, Jolie exudes confidence and ability to take care of any matter and get out of tough situations. Throw in the fact that the woman is a versatile actress, Jolie has proven herself to be a very convincing action star on the same level as George Clooney, Tom Cruise, and many other male action stars. As Salt, you’re constantly kept guessing as to what her true motivations are and where her allegiances lie. As a testament to her strong acting skills, Jolie is not so coldhearted as to not elicit any emotion and connection from the audience, but also not so soft as to make us question whether she can really kick anyone’s ass.

Liev Schreiber’s Ted Winters character reminded me a lot of Peter Sarsgaard character in the recent Knight and Day. This may partly be due to my mistaking the two actors from time to time, but they also have strikingly similar roles in their respective films (NOTE: Tom Cruise turned down Salt to make Knight and Day instead). In both, the actors pursue our main character (Cruise and Jolie). Unlike Knight and Day, however, Schreiber has a lot more to do in Salt and his character figures more prominently in the story. He wasn’t just merely running from place to place with a gun in his hand like Sarsgaard does in Knight and Day. Ted Winters is your typical straight-laced, serious, ex-military government operative who doesn’t fuck around. As with Jolie, you’re kept wondering whether Winters will really bring down Salt or whether his relationship with her will end up distracting him.

My enjoyment of this film can mostly be attributed to Phillip Noyce’s direction. Noyce is an old hand at this type of movie and he does it well for the most part. His film is a very classic kind of spy movie that seems better fit to have been set during the Cold War. Although its set in present day, the conflict is between the U.S. and Russia. Its refreshing for once to not watch a film whose antagonists are terrorists. This is a cat-and-mouse game where the players are engaged in a political chess game. When your story deals with states in conflict rather than a state fighting a terrorist organization, you no longer have a clear antagonist. Morals and ethics are colored in shades of gray and you’re no longer concerned with whether the “good guy” is going to get the “bad guy.” The crux of the conflict and the story is to see who is going to get away with what and eventually win the game for their side.

Noyce does a wonderful job painting the espionage world of Salt. Appropriately set in Washington, D.C., the film has a drab, cold look where the sky are gray and the trees are bare. The director makes great use of the locations (and for once we don’t have a scene set in a shipyard!!) as we go from a CIA building, St. Patrick’s Cathedral in NYC, a busy D.C. freeway, and the White House. With a score by the talented James Newton Howard (who also provided a great score to the horrendous The Last Airbender), Noyce establishes a good atmosphere for his characters to operate within.

For all this ass kissing, it might seem a little unlikely for me to have any issues with the movie. Well, I do. One problem I immediately caught is the noticeably weak dialogue written by screenwriter, Kurt Wimmer. The overall dialogue isn’t entirely bad. It accomplishes its purpose by driving the story forward and establishing the characters. What it lacks is freshness and originality. I don’t mean that I wanted the characters to constantly come up with sarcastic and witty quips, but I also didn’t want to hear a bunch of clichéd lines like “I didn’t know you guys had a sense of humor.” I know government employees are not known for their clever repartee, but I’m sure with a little more effort and inspiration, we could have had something a little more engaging to listen to.

I stated how much I liked the Cold War-style of the story. It harkens back to classic spy movies of the 70s and Noyce’s Jack Ryan films. At the same time, however, I couldn’t help but feel like the story had a bit of hokiness to it as well. The whole Russia vs. USA thing doesn’t feel as authentic as it is meant to feel. Although you see breaking news reports on the TV to convey the story’s crises, I still didn’t get a feel for the large magnitude of the events. In addition, the goals the spies set out to accomplish seemed very inconsequential given the decades of preparation they have undergone for this one mission. [SPOILERS AHEAD] Killing the Russian President just doesn’t seem that big a deal for all the training you have done. The second mission (launching nuclear weapons against the Middle East to spark a World War) makes up for this in a way, but this too has problems. Sending a spy out to sneak into the underground vaults of the White House to launch nuclear weapons not only sounds implausible, but its not the kind of job I typically associate with a spy.

[MORE SPOILERS AHEAD] The second mission is the focus of the Third Act and I felt that the Third Act falls apart a little. The villain resorts to the lazy story device of not immediately killing Salt so that he can voice his feelings to her. I fucking hate this because especially given how everyone disposes of their targets immediately, its so inconsistent to then have the characters face each other in the end and explain to each other how they feel about one another….ESPECIALLY when you’re doing this in a damn nuclear war room and you’re about to launch a bunch of nukes against some countries!!

Finally, the [EVEN MORE SPOILERS AHEAD] reveal of Schreiber’s character as a Russian spy is total Scooby-Doo ending. I wasn’t surprised to see this kind of ending and I should have seen it coming a mile away, but I wish the filmmakers had come up with something a little more original…something a little less Hollywood. I can understand why the filmmakers felt that Salt needed to be redeemed somehow because, after all, we wouldn’t want our “hero” to remain a Russian spy and succeed at screwing America over. The film would be lambasted for being Commie propaganda had we gotten that ending. I’m not saying that should have been the ending, but it would have been nice to not have our character somehow be totally redeemed and to have her remain a killing machine badass who doesn’t totally complete her mission (thereby making the U.S. win), but also not coming off as the total loser either.

Anyway, for all my problems with the story, I still managed to enjoy Salt as a pleasant diversionary summer experience. It doesn’t have the punch or intellectualism of Inception (which I saw again and it holds up even better the 2nd time around), but it doesn’t try to be that. Jolie is balls out intense in this movie and her energy is infectious in making this movie work.

Advertisements