Salt (2010) dir. Phillip Noyce
Starring: Angelina Jolie, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Liev Schreiber
By Alan Bacchus
I’m not sure this deserves a three and a half-star rating, but its success was such a genuine surprise.
Top of the list of red flags coming into this picture was director Phillip Noyce – the Aussie filmmaker who startled us with 1989’s ‘Dead Calm’ a thrilling Polanski-esque three hander, but then quickly sold out to Hollywood studio filmmaking and movie and movie which never lived up the promise of Dead Calm – there were the two dull Harrison Ford Jack Ryan pictures, Sliver, The Saint, The Bone Collector all films which were technically competent but unmemorable. (note: Rabbit Proof Fence was acclaimed but OK, and I never saw The Quiet American)
Then along comes Salt, starring Angelina Jolie, which seemed to be another high concept action vehicle with the same stench of girl power awfulness as, Wanted or the Tomb Raider movies. But after 10mins or so it became apparent this isn’t just another Phillip Noyce hackfest or Jolie-feminism, but a sharp as nails, tight, no frills actioner.
Part of the surprise is the adherence to an old school action aesthetic. Running, shooting and good old fashioned stunt work provides all the thrills, very few of which are enhanced/engorged with CG, the cinematic equivalent of steroids.
Angelina Jolie portrays Evelyn Salt, a CIA operative, who can shoot guns, fight, ride motorcycles, and MacGyver a bazooka from a fire extinguisher as good as any action hero we’ve seen. What separates Salt from Wanted or Tomb Raider though is the surprising degree of humanness in the character. Before she takes off on her journey, we see her, believably, as a dedicated wife to a supportive and loving husband – and the reason why she exercises her fight or flight syndrome.
The disruption in her domestic life comes in the form of a captured Russian politician who claims Salt is actually a Russian spy planted in the US when she was a child. Fearing retaliation against her family Evelyn takes off, on the run from her own colleagues. On her heels is the whip smart Peabody (Ejiofor) and Salt’s old pal Ted (Schreiber).
Whilst Ms. Jolie is being chased Noyce and company cleverly manage to keep us in doubt as to Salt’s real affiliation – is she a spy? Or is she not? And if she is, does she still have allegiance to mother Russia? Or has she become a card carrying American?
Looking back, perhaps Phillip Noyce was the best person to direct this script. On the surface the idea of a stone cold spy with some memory problems would appear to be another Bourne knockoff with a female twist. But Noyce’s modest production philosophy separates it from the Greengrass’ shaky action. In fact, the tone actually harkens back to 1993’s The Fugitive. Director Andrew Davis, another competent though unflashy action director, never made a better before or after The Fugitive, but the adherence to a simple visual style, but with expertly choreographed action in the realm of realism made for sublime entertainment.
Same goes for Salt.
Other key creative responsible for this success are the editing work of action editor extraordinaire, Stuart Baird, Kurt Wimmer’s script, which is as lean as it can be considering the complicated set-up, and perhaps most important James Newton Howard’s aggressive pulsating score which is quite phenomenal.
The major quibble of implausibility over and above the plot holes (which don’t matter too much anyway) is the leap of faith we must take to believe that Ms. Jolie, who looks all of 100lbs of rake thin skin and bones could actually fight off trained spies twice her size. It's just a small leap though. Salt is a real 'wimmer'.