So it's safe to say we can plug Angelina Jolie into just about any action film now, including ones she wasn't originally set to appear in, right? I mean after all, before anyone heard anything about Salt, it was that Tom Cruise had backed out of the lead role, and directors like Michael Mann and Peter Berg were almost attached to helm it at one point. Philip Noyce (Patriot Games) was the one enlisted to make Kurt Wimmer's script (Law Abiding Citizen), and the film makes for interesting viewing.
Jolie plays the title character Evelyn Salt, who works at the CIA. We're not aware of this initially; the film starts a couple of years before in North Korea, where Salt is part of a prisoner swap between the country and the U.S. She's brought back home by Ted (Liev Schreiber, Taking Woodstock), a fellow CIA worker and close friend. One could almost suggest that the effort was helped by the efforts of Mike (August Diehl, Inglourious Basterds), Salt's husband. Flashing forward to the present day, a mysterious Russian walks into the CIA offices and mentions the possibility of a Russian spy in their midst. Salt (and everyone else) is surprised to hear that she is the one, part of an old Russian program for spies to incorporate themselves into American society in order to pull off a large-scale attach against key personalities in government. The chase begins for Salt as she tries to clear her name.
When you watch Salt, the comparison to the Bourne films is both convenient and easy. There are a lot of stunts Jolie does that make you clench your teeth, hoping that she'll pull them off. But some of the sequences just look too...familiar. A scene where the CIA lead investigator Peabody (Chiwetel Ejiofor, American Gangster) peers out Salt's apartment window where she's hidden on the ledge outside the building looks a lot like the scene in the first Bourne movie where Matt Damon's Jason Bourne is hanging outside the consulate ledge. There are also tight shots of hand to hand combat and some looser handheld shots of Salt's pursuit by the CIA that remind one of the Bourne movies. The calmer camera shots allow Salt some pause as she tries to piece together her life with Mike, and how the CIA ordered her to befriend him. Falling in love and marrying him might not have been part of the plan, but it allows us to learn more about the motivations for her actions down the road.
There is not a lot to be gained from a performance perspective in the film; Jolie plays the victimized/misidentified protagonist who can kick a little ass fairly well. In fact, doesn't it seem like that's all she's been appearing as in films lately? She's in almost all of the scenes and it feels like she puts more time into choreographing the fight scenes that developing the character. It's perhaps that reason why the film's ending feels predictable, perhaps as convenient as the similarity I mentioned earlier. Without spoiling it, let's look at the film's co-star. It's Liev Schreiber. What does that tell you?
It tells me that the movie's state of flux and then a presumed concerted effort to get Jolie into the role and pushed towards a summer release ruined what could have been an intriguing mix of action and Cold War-era thriller intrigue. Instead of a potentially excellent movie, we get another installment of popcorn action films with a female lead. Novel (and pretty cool) at first, but now without an inspired script or solid performances is getting a little stale. Come on Angelina, you're better than this, time to prove it one more time.
The Blu-ray Disc:
Presented in 2.40:1 widescreen and in high-definition using the AVC codec, Salt looks pretty good but doesn't feel like a jaw-dropper. There are sequences that look really good, particularly a funeral sequence in a New York church where the American Vice-President is being eulogized; there is loads of detail and depth in those shots. Yet there's no real detail in the tighter shots, and blacks aren't as deep or inky throughout the feature as I'd expect. Don't get me wrong, Salt looks decent on Blu-ray, just not as sharp and vivid as I was anticipating.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 lossless track brings the noise and the ruckus when called upon, and that happens frequently through the film. Starting from the chase in (and eventually out of) the CIA building, Salt avoids bullet hits that show up in a few channels that provide for immersion, while larger, louder explosions pack the necessary 'oomph' for the film's soundtrack. Dialogue sounds strong and balanced in the center channel, and directional effects are replicated accurately and without complaint.
There are three versions of this film. The theatrical cut clocks in at a shade under 1:40, while the "Unrated Extended Cut" is a full minute longer, and the "Unrated Director's Cut" is three minutes longer than that. The movie could have used more exposition and use out of some excellent supporting cast (I think I had from to spare on my second hand from counting the lines that former Emmy-winner Andre Braugher had in the film), but four freakin' minutes?!? Come on.
Moving on, Boyce contributes a commentary that is engaging and fascinating, largely in part because it's a change of pace from a commentary participant who might discuss what's going on in a scene as it's on screen. He talks about how his father's involvement in the intelligence field in Australia and how it's influence the work he's done as a director long before Salt. He recalls the early drafts the film went through, along with the adaptations to make the character into a woman (along with some studio meetings about making this a vehicle film for Jolie). He discusses how Jolie has evolved her acting skills from when he directed her more than a decade ago in The Bone Collector. As the commentary goes on, he introduces other members of the crew to discuss the visual effects, editing and other components. They speak their piece and depart the track, for Noyce to talk more about the spy aspects of the production and on larger themes in moviemaking, such as broadband's impact in future movie distribution. It's an excellent track and one of the best I've heard in 2010. Not only for what it's not, but it's done very well.
The rest of the extras are a little redundant from Noyce's track in some areas but still help paint the picture well. "The Ultimate Female Action Hero" (8:05) examines Jolie's approach to this film and what her character's intent in the story, and how she was to work with on set, while Jolie discusses the physical demands and preparation for the role. "The Real Agents" (12:33) is an interesting piece with retired agents (that are presumably technical advisors for Salt) who recall their work, origins and aspirations, along with some real-life stories and anecdotes from their profession. They talk about some of the parts of the film in real-world application, such as getting caught, the use of disguises and other components, and it's fascinating to watch. "Spy Disguise" (5:26) shows us the many looks and moods of Salt throughout the film and her transformation into the more startling one. "The Modern Master of the Political Thriller" (9:15) examines the cast and crew's thoughts and opinions of Noyce, and Noyce covers what drew him to the story. "False Identity" (7:14) looks at the computer and visual effects in the feature, and shows pass-through footage from the practical to the finished footage. "Salt: Declassified" (29:47) serves as the making-of look at the film, with more interviews, along with some examination of portions of the story and of individual scenes. This covers a lot of the same ground the previous featurettes do, but compresses much of that time and incorporates others, like production design and other areas. The "Spy Cam: picture-in-picture track (available on the theatrical cut only) serves as an IME of sorts, while trailers for other Sony films and the Sony movieIQ track round this disc out.
Salt makes for interesting and even white-knuckled thrill rides in the first two acts, but the third act feels a little tacked on and the time invested in enjoying the film is wasted, despite the cool moments in the first hour. Technically it sounds great and the commentary is worth listening to even if you don't wind up liking the film, but I'd limit this to a rental at best.