Full disclosure: I'm not a huge fan of the Bourne films. I don't hate them, but a little of Greengrass' shaky cam aesthetic (not so much the nauseating camerawork itself, but the tone of gritty, almost bitter realism) goes a long way. I hear several critics (including some of DVDTalk's own -- no offense, guys) complaining about the ludicrousness of Salt, but has Matt Damon's spy series wiped Tom Cruise's from our collective memories? Aside from some poorly computerized Spider-Man-esque acrobatics in the third act, I don't think anything happens here that's any sillier than the average Hollywood spy blockbuster. Too bad nothing particularly interesting happens, either.
Angelina Jolie (who alternates between looking like her usual movie star self and looking like a bobblehead doll) plays CIA agent Evelyn Salt, the residing Russian expert at the DC branch. Everything's fine and dandy and American-Dream-y until a Russian defector named Orlov (Daniel Olbrychski) walks in and drops a bombshell on Evelyn, her co-worker friend Ted Winter (Liev Schrieber), and a hard-nosed FBI liason named Peabody (Chiwetel Ejiofor) -- "Evelyn Salt," he says, "is a Russian spy." Evelyn is concerned. "My name is Evelyn Salt," she replies. "Then you are a Russian spy," he concludes matter-of-factly. True to his word, fifteen minutes later, Evelyn's pulling legs off of tables, mixing chemicals together and rigging fire extinguishers in order to escape the building. If she's the person she says she is, then why is she running?
Director Philip Noyce gets farther than the viewer might expect toying with the audience's head, stretching the mystery (or the solid pretense of one) well past the halfway point by keeping things at a fast pace, and Jolie is right there next to him, jumping headfirst into the action. There's a reasonably entertaining freeway chase where the usual leaping from rooftop to rooftop is moved to the tops of several trucks, which are moving in different directions, at different elevations; it's a clever idea that Noyce stages with just the right measure of gravity-defying flair. Everyone's performances are perfunctory but pleasant, which is fine given that I like Schrieber and Ejiofor well enough. Then, relatively suddenly, the movie arrives at what might've been scaled up as the conclusion of another thriller, and the movie's forward momentum awkwardly grinds to a halt.
It's hard to put a finger on any one specific thing that's missing from the rest of the movie, because all of the movie's parts start running at about 60% power, but it's probably the fact that there's nothing tangible at stake. Two of the three Mission: Impossible films had the right kind of stakes: one specific (the spies themselves having their identities exposed), and the other personal (Hunt's wife being murdered); the movie itself could inform the viewer why they should invest in either of those things not happening. Salt's threat is old-fashioned: the end of the world, basically, and the movie can't sell the sense of danger enough to keep pulses pounding. In lieu of this, the film tries to amp up the spy action, which it sort of accomplishes (this is the bloodiest PG-13 I think I've ever seen), but then there's that Spider-Man silliness, and too many fight scenes begin to mush together.
It's pretty well known that Salt was written for Tom Cruise and re-written for Jolie when he dropped out. Since I've always wondered why there weren't more action thrillers starring women, and Salt is at least partially effective, I want to stress that the movie's execution is more problematic than the premise. It's certainly better than I thought it was going to be (I had incredibly low expectations), and it's a better movie than it could have ever been with Cruise (with whom it'd just be a retread of his M:I films). Salt has some spark, but it could use a lightning bolt. In the last few minutes of the movie, a character punches Salt, and she doesn't punch back, despite the means, motive, and opportunity. It's a perfect metaphor for the movie. Then again, at least they could fix that in the sequel.
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