In her new movie “Salt,” Angelina Jolie is outfitted in blond wigs, black wigs, jumpsuits, pantsuits. She can appear eerily strait-laced in one scene and goth in the next. She’s probably the most dynamic action star in the movies right now and certainly the most exotic.
In “Salt,” she’s playing a role that originally was meant for Tom Cruise; I don't lament the switch. The part could just as easily have been set up for Matt Damon. Although the principal filmmakers – director Phillip Noyce, screenwriter Kurt Wimmer and cinematographer Robert Elswit – seem to have had a “Bourne”-style franchise in mind, their film is a bit too wiggy and perverse for that.
It’s also unapologetically a throwback to cold warriorism. Jolie plays Evelyn Salt, a CIA undercover superspy first seen in flashback being tortured by her North Korean captors – just to set the film’s temperature. (All in a day’s work.)
Two years later, in Washington, D.C., where Evelyn is cozily ensconced with her doting German arachnologist husband (August Diehl), she is named as a Russian spy by a Russian defector (Daniel Olbrychski), who also warns of an imminent assassination attempt in the US against the visiting Russian president.
Denying the accusation, fearful for her husband’s safety, Evelyn flees the CIA’s dragnet and spends much of the rest of the film slicing, dicing, blasting, garroting, slithering down elevator shafts, falling out of planes, and doing high-rise backflips onto speeding semis. And all of this without so much as a smirk. She’s not even afraid of spiders.
Despite the fact that Evelyn’s calisthenics, at least at first, are propelled by her love for her husband, she’s not a romantic. She’s too glacéed and otherworldly for that. Jolie resembles here, as she did to an even greater extent in the “Lara Croft” movies and “Wanted” and “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” a supersized action figure. There’s an animatronic blankness to her features (even allowing for the fact that Evelyn must always be wary of revealing her true emotions).
Paradoxically, this blankness makes her more compelling than the usual action emoter because we are never quite sure what she’s up to or when she’ll explode. Evelyn is almost preternaturally cunning – in less than a minute she can fashion a wastebasket and fire extinguisher into a lethal weapon – but she doesn’t appear to need any time to machinate. Provoked, she turns into an instant destructo machine.
Noyce made his Hollywood name with the Tom Clancy adaptations “Patriot Games” and “Clear and Present Danger,” but in recent years he showed his real worth as an artist with such films as “Rabbit-Proof Fence” and the Graham Greene adaptation “The Quiet American,” featuring one of Michael Caine’s two or three best performances.
In “Salt,” he does a commendable job as a director-for-hire, especially in the action scenes, although the flashback sequences are stiff and there’s an undue amount of exposition involving CIA and Russian operatives standing around explaining the plot to us. Even though good actors such as Liev Schreiber and Chiwetel Ejiofor are doing the explaining (or disinforming?), they’re essentially just taking up space. What we really want to see is Evelyn, that new-style Mata Hari, do her drop kicks.
(Speaking of casting, why is Andre Braugher, a great actor, given a glorified walk-on as the US secretary of Defense? He’s ranked high in the billing, so much must have been left on the cutting-room floor.)
Although Middle East terrorism is cited at one point, “Salt” could easily have been conceived in the 1960s. There’s something oddly comforting about this – just as, in a way, the recent discovery of Russian spies living double lives in the US harked back to a (seemingly) simpler time. I’m not trying to champion Commie nostalgia here, but the filmmakers might be.
At a time when the real world of modern global terrorism inserts itself into even the most comic book-style escapades – “The A Team” anyone? – it’s no wonder that political action filmmakers are looking for ways to heat up the screen without giving audiences real-world nightmares. Casting about for new villains, Hollywood has settled on a safe solution: Bring back the old villains.
The only thing missing from “Salt” is Lotte Lenya’s Rosa Klebb with her steel blade-tipped shoes from “From Russia With Love.” Come to think of it, the Russian defector here does indeed kill with steel-blade shoes. Nice touch. Grade: B (Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action.)
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