Monday, September 13, 2010

SALT - A Thriller with Curves, Thrown and Otherwise

Salt” is an espionage action thriller that throws curves. Aspects of the story range from the familiar to the expected for this jaded viewer, but only after the film surprised me by veering off the beaten path midway through.

If this film had featured a male movie star in the title role, “Salt” would have been a story we’ve seen before, pretty much every summer. Fortunately it starred Angelina Jolie. From this casting we can expect lots of action and stunt work since, when not doing serious films like Clint Eastwood’s “Changeling,” Ms. Jolie is known to enjoy roles with comic book action. “Salt” has plenty of that, with Jolie in her long blonde tresses leaping from buildings to roads to trucks to anything that will get her away from her pursuers, continuing with brunette Jolie leaping, climbing, falling, and fighting her way through the second half of the film. Suffice it to say, action fans can rejoice, especially if realism isn’t important to them. But if you want more than action sequences, “Salt” provides some twists and turns along the way.

To backtrack: Angelina Jolie plays Evelyn Salt, a sophisticated CIA agent who dresses superbly. She is married to Michael, a German arachnologist (an expert on spiders, working at the Smithsonian and, conveniently, in North Korea), played by August Diehl. Their relationship, between his spiders on the table and a cute dog, is sweet and not what we expect for a spy. Michael was Salt’s white knight when her CIA buddies, by policy, abandoned her to a North Korean prison. Of course, the day the story begins is their wedding anniversary.

Ted White, another CIA agent, is stolidly played by Liev Schreiber. His stone face barely moves, but his eyes are worth following. The two colleagues are leaving their cover jobs when a Russian defector walks into a building he shouldn’t have known existed. This is Orlov, played in the past sequences by Daniel Pearce and in the present by Daniel Obrychski. Pearce is creepy and Obrychski is sleazy, and that one ages into the other is quite believable.

The other important character in the film is Peabody, another Fed, but not CIA. He is played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, a busy British actor American audiences may particularly recall as the Operative, the bad guy in Joss Whedon’s “Serenity.” In “Salt,” Ejiofor’s Peabody is a calm, cold, arrogant professional, and then he gets pissed off. He’s lots of fun to watch, and a good foil to Schreiber’s anxious but contained confusion as a friend of the presumed traitor Salt.

Once the plot starts with the set-up shown in the trailer – the scene where the Russian defector tells the CIA that there’s a Russian mole about to kill the Russian President at the funeral of the American Vice President, and that the mole’s name is Evelyn Salt – the dogs are loosed, and the action continues almost non-stop for the next hour and change.

  • From the get-go, Peabody totally believes the Russian defector, since the machinery of interrogation tells him the man is truthful. He goes after Salt with a vengeance.
  • From the get-go, White is hesitant to believe his friend is a long-term mole in his organization and, while he doesn’t interfere in the pursuit, he reins in the highly aggressive Peabody.
  • From the get-go, Salt knows exactly what is going to happen, and her first goal is to get away from the Feds to find and protect her husband. Her first spectacular escape brings her to their apartment, but only the dog is there to rescue. Next comes her second spectacular escape…

The Feds are always at least one step behind Salt. The action moves to New York City (Salt traveled there on a Bolt Bus, simple and smart) for the Vice President’s funeral, where heads of state are gathered at a grand Cathedral, surrounded by city and federal and probably foreign national police.

An error in this section distracted me for a moment – did they not expect to
release the film this year? A television newscast about the Vice President’s
funeral shows the man’s year of death as 2011. Oops.

After the well-executed yet standard shootings, explosions, kicks, gouges, punches, car chases and crashes, there’s a terrific explosion in a church where the story turned a dark and dangerous corner.

Once the film takes its tasty turn away from the standard fare, there’s no question that there must be Russian moles with high security clearance, unfortunately with too few choices of who it, or they, could be. At the White House, we see Andre Braugher as the silent Secretary of Defense. This distracted from the fast-moving story -- I couldn’t help but wonder how much of his role was on the cutting room floor. Had the producers and director added a few more familiar faces in the last third of the film – even if most of the audience doesn’t know the actors by name –the last 15 minutes would have been greatly improved. Ages for these actors could have ranged between Jolie’s and Braugher’s, giving the producers the opportunity to use actors like Jack Conley, Bruce McGill, Joe Morton, Max Perlich, Jessica Steen, Robin Weigert …the possibilities are countless. Is this feasible in terms of union contracts and standard hiring practices? I don’t know. Would it be better movie making? Yes. I’m not suggesting that director Phillip Noyce should have hired a bunch of disguised stars like those in John Huston’s cerebral murder mystery, “The List of Adrian Messenger.” I merely suggest that had there been some more recognizable faces in the second half, the focus of the search for the mole would not have pulled so unerringly to….. where it did. I’m sure you can guess without my telling you, which is the main problem of the second half of the film. It’s not thrilling to know where the thriller is going.

Nevertheless, Phillip Noyce does a fine directing job overall. The story requires flashbacks that could last for multiple chapters were this a novel (it is not based on a novel, but on a screen story by Kurt Wimmer and Brian Helgeland), but they did not feel too long or intrusive. Rather, they colored in the story despite the grayness of the scenes. It’s a comic book kind of movie, and yet… not what I expected, for which I thank director Noyce, screenwriter Kurt Wimmer, and yes, Angelina Jolie.

The more I think about “Salt,” though, the more I want from it. That’s the fault of Noyce and Wimmer. If they hadn’t surprised me with the turn off the usual track into a dark tunnel, I wouldn’t have looked for more than the action thriller this is. Oh well, in a perfect world – which reminds me of another Clint Eastwood-directed film I really liked, with what is probably Kevin Costner’s best performance. My favorite Jolie performance before “Salt” was Christine in Eastwood’s “Changeling.” This one is gaining on it in my mind. Jolie’s face, her stance, her eyes, her movements tell me there’s more than meets the eye here: This is not just an action heroine. This woman has a brain behind her eyes, and a whole life has brought Evelyn Salt to this place. Jolie’s performance makes us want to see how the rest of it goes.

I liked “Salt,” I liked the performances, I liked the structure. I extend cheers to director Noyce and writer Wimmer for surprising me at least twice, and cheers to Angelina Jolie for leading the pack of female action stars as the one who is more than a pretty face and athletic body.

~ Molly Matera, signing off to read a good thriller…

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