Angelina Jolie superstar
You have great spy stories, like those of John Le Carré. You have great spy action adventures, like the Bourne stories. And then you have action movies with superficial espionage plots that are merely excuses for the stars to go through their paces, like Phillip Noyce’s Salt, with a screenplay written by Kurt Wimmer and enjoyably bombastic music by James Newton Howard. The star is Angelina Jolie, instead of Tom Cruise, who was originally considered. This change makes a big difference. It’s more interesting to see an action superstar who’s a woman, and Angelina Jolie has proven to be the best. Whether it’s truly a breakthrough for a female to do this kind of role is debatable, but in some sense certainly it’s a further step toward sexual equality, and Jolie is an A-lister to equal any male star.
Working with Kurt Wimmer’s writing, Salt delivers a warmed-over Cold War tale of Russian moles, the CIA, and plots against the USA — stuff too unsophisticated for Bourne and too passé for Le Carré, but Noyce, a very good director as well as a skillful storyteller, doesn’t insult our intelligence with it. Angelina’s action chops are such that she can take and deliver the same violence as any man and not seem pushed or abused.
As with so many films that favor movement over narrative, flashbacks fill in an (intentionally) confusing and checkered background for Evelyn Salt (Jolie), whom we see in an opening sequence being beaten and tortured by the North Koreans and then sprung by a soulful Teutonic fellow called Mike Krause (August Diehl of A Woman in Berlin and Inglourious Basterds). Two years later they’re happily married in Washington and he’s an arachnologist and she’s a CIA agent, her closest associate seemingly being fellow operative Ted Winter (a solid Liev Schreiber).
The first big surprise (and passage of lightening exposition) comes when Salt debriefs an unexpected Russian defector, Orlov (Daniel Olbrychski). Orlov tells Salt (and a squad of cohorts behind one-way glass) about a secret network of Russian spies trained in childhood to be planted as sleepers in the US, and then he fingers Salt as one of them. Salt denies this verbally, but appears to confirm it in action by embarking on a whirlwind escape through DC, climbing around outside her apartment building in her bare feet, defying security cameras, leaping from one speeding semi- to another and then another on the Beltway, and jumping around inside an elevator shaft, as well as wiping out anybody in any location who gets in her way. She escapes from a trapped situation in the CIA building by improvising some kind of rocket launcher thing from table legs and fire extinguishers, hiding what she’s up to by taking off her panties and throwing them over the security camera. (What would Tom Cruise have done?) Ted and his associate Peabody (the excellent but this time wasted Chiwetel Ejiofor) remain close on her tail but one step behind. From here on more or less to film’s end the running and the violence never stop, with major plot twists every twenty minutes or so.
What follows is saved from being merely one long chase sequence by keeping us guessing about where Salt’s loyalties really lie. Things take on a Bourne-like cast as it begins to seem she doesn’t know the answer to that question herself. Salt is in New York, still narrowly evading the CIA, where the Russian president (Olek Krupa) is to give a funeral eulogy in a church. Orlov has said the team of moles have been assigned to assassinate him. What will she do? You’ll have to see the movie to find out.
Noyce proved his action skills with Tom Clancy adaptations, Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger, dated Nineties material. The Australian director showed more class with The Quiet American and Rabbit-Proof Fence, fine politically-charged tales shot by the brilliant Christopher Doyle. Here Noyce maintains a break-neck pace (no room to breathe) that almost hides the lack of plausibility in the plot, but the material seems decades old. A final surprise identity revelation and a doomsday scenario deep under the White House are more opportunities for Angelina Jolie to show her invincibility as an action heroine, but original narrative and rounded character portrayal are elements never allowed to come in out of the cold. Luckily the constant battles are filmed with sparkle and clarity and without too much reliace on CGI trickery. Some of the old-school aspects pay off, even if the storyline seems past its expiration date. But while we give the benefit of the doubt to the physical exploits, some details are patently absurd. For instance when Salt escapes from DC to NYC, she disguises herself by shifting from neutral-toned clothes to all-black outfits and dyes her long hair shiny black. Some disguise. She stands out more than ever and looks more than ever the bee-sting-lipped sculpted-cheekboned superstar. Did the filmmakers think they were dealing with Bourne’s Franke Potente? They may have forgotten that Potente was virtually unknown, and hence easier to disguise with some hair dye — and a cut. Jolie’s tresses remain long and flowing.
Nonetheless Angelina, who demonstrated her dynamic physicality in Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Wanted, and the Tomb Raider movies, continues to carry off this kind of invincible female ball-buster role with cool panache. Only Uma Thurman has done as well. But to think of Uma in Tarantino’s Kill Bill series (of which a third installment is on the way) is to realize that her function as the Pulp Fiction wunderkind’s muse puts her on an entirely different plane. Ms. Jolie is tough, fearless, beautiful, and scary, but she has never had the likes of Tarantino to write parts for her. She merely has taken workmanlike material and delivered it with boldness and dash, and she does that again here in this boilerplate but nonetheless rousing femme fatale blockbuster.
DIRECTOR: PHILIP NOYCE
WRITER: KURT WIMMER
CAST: ANGELINA JOLIE, LIEV SCHREIBER, CHIWETEL EJIOFOR
RUNTIME: 100 MIN