Monday, August 09, 2010

Salt / **** (PG-13)

Image courtesy of Columbia Pictures
Evelyn Salt: Angelina Jolie
Ted Winter: Liev Schreiber
Peabody: Chiwetel Ejiofor
Vassily Orlov: Daniel Olbrychski
Mike Krause: August Diehl

Columbia Pictures presents a film directed by Phillip Noyce. Written by Kurt Wimmer. Running time: 100 min. Rated PG-13 (for intense sequences of violence and action).

The great action film is near extinction. I didn’t realize this until I saw the new Angelina Jolie action thriller “Salt”.  There was a time when the action movie had style and efficiency and grace. The age of digital imaging has muddied the action movie with effects that look unbelievable or, sometimes, just plain blurry. Even the excellent Jason Bourne franchise seems to just pull it off with shaky camera shots and quick cut editing. “Salt” is like a blast from the past, in more ways than one. Thanks to recent events involving Russian spies in the United States, it’s pretty easy to buy the Russians as our enemies again.

The movie opens with our heroine, Evelyn Salt, being tortured in a North Korean prison. I was immediately reminded of the opening segment of the James Bond flick “Die Another Day”, one of countless victims of today’s CGI heavy action practices. Almost immediately we realize this is not going to be the same kind of action movie as that one. There are no giant hovercrafts bouncing around to send our heroine on an explosion-fueled ride of destruction in the name of freedom.

Instead, Salt is met in the neutral zone by her CIA boss, Ted Winter (Liev Schreiber, “X-Men Origins: Wolverine”), in a prisoner exchange that was partially arranged by her boyfriend, Mike Krause (August Diehl, “Inglourious Basterds”). Some time later Mike is now Salt’s husband and she’s back at work with the CIA’s Russia division. One day, a defector named Vassily Orlov (Daniel Olbruchski), claims a Russian sleeper agent will assassinate the Russian president during the funeral of the U.S. vice president. He then reveals that the agent’s name is Evelyn Salt.

Consider the moments immediately following Orlov’s claim. Director Phillip Noyce (“Dead Calm”) is an expert at developing tension in unspoken terms. Evelyn knows she will be detained, but focuses all her concern on her husband,  insisting that he’s in danger and must be found. Is this just a distraction for the other agents, or is she genuinely concerned for her husband’s safety? Agent Winter seems concerned for his employee, more so than his duty to his job. Yet Schreiber keeps a cold calm in front of National Counterintelligence Agent Peabody (Chiwetel Ejiofor, “2012”). Peabody leaps into containment mode, working only from the responsibility to secure a possible threat. The tension in the room rises immediately to the point of near physical manifestation.

From that point on the tension is released and raised again and again through non-stop action that quickly takes us to places we couldn’t have suspected. Is Salt really a Russian agent? Why does she run? Why does she do exactly the things she shouldn’t? Why does she save her dog and find it a home? I think that final question means more than just that the filmmakers are sentimental dog lovers.

I, of course, would never suggest what the answers to these questions are in a review. Some have said that they could predict some developments. I’m pretty sure that’s true, but I find it hard to believe that most people could predict how the movie would get to its conclusions. Any good critic knows it’s not what happens in a movie that makes it great, but how it happens.

Take a look at how the action develops in the movie. After being ousted for something she knows she isn’t, Salt leads her former colleagues on an amazing chase through buildings, streets, highways, byways, and overpasses. Noyce’s direction here is so precise that there is never a question of what is happening, yet always there’s the question of just how each situation Salt puts herself in is perceived as better by her than the last. She jumps from an overpass to the top of a semi. From there she jumps to a tanker. Her every move is calculated, yet each seems to put her into a spot that is more impossible than the last, and yet it all seems plausible from an action universe point of view.

Then in New York, Salt raises the stakes by doing exactly what she shouldn’t be doing. She finds herself in a police car, and you think there’s no way she can possibly get away from this. Yet, she does, and you don’t question how she did it. Not only does the action seem possible despite its implausibility, but also her actions all end up making sense. There’s reason for everything she does. Nothing is done just to put her into another impossible situation, and somehow each moment seems more impossible than the last.

There are some people who will say I’m nuts to claim the action in this movie is plausible, but I’m speaking in a purely entertainment state of mind here. Jolie and Noyce sell what Salt is doing. They sell what she’s capable of, and I for one am very glad that Tom Cruise opted out of this project so it could be rewritten for a female lead. The vulnerability of a female lead aids in raising the stakes and in raising the shock value of her maneuvers and motivation. I haven’t been this thrilled by an action thriller in years.

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