Thursday, December 30, 2010
Director: Phillip Noyce
Starring: Angelina Jolie, Liev Schreiber, Chiwetel Ejiofor, August Diehl, Daniel Olbrychski
Running Time: 100 min.
★★★ (out of ★★★★)
Watching Salt I couldn't help but be reminded of The American, also released this year. You know that near dialogue-free movie starring George Clooney as an assassin that everyone thought was too slow and boring, but I kind of appreciated for what it was. This, with its relentless, pulse-pounding action could easily be called The Anti-American (in more ways than one) so on the surface, it's an odd comparison. But their common link are movie stars unwilling to phone their lead performances for a paycheck even though they very easily could and no one would care. Without either star, the films wouldn't amount to much at all, but it's true to a greater extent here. The movie itself is just fine and has few noticeable problems other than a silly, familiar plot, but no one else could have brought what Angelina Jolie does to it. And no other actress is capable of carrying just one action movie, much less an entire action franchise. With all the outside attention she gets, it's easy to forget she's the most believable action star we have, male or female. Salt's essentially a standard actioner, but this finally settles it: Jolie is the best at what she does. And what she does is kick ass like it's nobody's business.
Jolie is CIA agent Evelyn Salt, who gets thrown for a major loop when when a Russian defector, Orlov (Daniel Olbrychski) shows up at headquarters and spins a pretty unbelievable tale about how English-speaking Russian super agents trained from birth have been plotting to destroy the United States from within for decades and had a hand in key historical events like the Kennedy assassination. He says their next assignment is to kill the visiting Russian President in New York City and announces the person who will do it: Evelyn Salt. Shocked at the accusation she's a KGB spy Salt goes on the run in an effort to protect her German arachnologist husband, Michael (August Diehl) while being hunted by her colleagues, current partner Ted Winter (Liev Schrieber) and special agent Peabody (Chiwetel Ejiofor). If she isn't a spy then why run? Unless, of course, she really is. The answer to that big question arrives sooner than you'd think but other more complicated issues arise as Salt fights for her survival.
In a role originally written for Tom Cruise, who dropped out fearing it would too closely resemble his Mission: Impossible character (he's right, it would), Jolie absolutely kills it. Salt's name was changed from Edwin to Evelyn and I'm guessing that's where most of the rewriting ended since everything she does in this movie we're accustomed to seeing from a male Bond-type character. Her physicality is indescribable and watching you can tell that she did most if not all of her own stunts, which is just sick when you consider they include leaping from high-rise buildings and diving onto speeding vehicles. The performance is not only fearless, but limitless in terms of its physicality, and after showing a strong penchant toward action-driven projects in the past (most recently Wanted), her game is upped to a whole new level this time. She's believable as an overly competent CIA agent, a woman who could be a Russian spy, an assassin taking out hundreds of men, a wife torn between her marriage and her job, and when a disguise calls for it, even as a man. And when the story makes a sudden dramatic shift midway through she doesn't miss a beat and impressively adjusts every detail in her performance. With Liev Schrieber they picked the perfect actor to support her, being that he's as cool and controlled as she is intense.
The actual plot is ridiculous (though not entirely predictable), but give screenwriter Brian Helgeland credit for taking the script to the dark side and staying there right up until the end while director Phillip Noyce manages to keep things going at such a breakneck pace you hardly realize just how familiar the story and characters are. This may be action trash, but it's trash of the highest order and its lean, mean 100 minutes feel more like 10. Many have already complained about the abrupt cliffhanger ending clearly meant to set up a sequel but is anyone really watching a mindless action fest like this to see how it ends? Angelina's the only reason to watch and even just the tease she might reprise the role make the film's conclusion a success. I was initially a doubter but the hype is all true. She's that good. As an action thriller, Salt doesn't break any new ground, but there's no reason it should have to when Jolie can so effectively fool me into thinking it does.