"Salt" is the latest entry in the spy action genre from minds of writers Kurt Wimmer and Brian Helgeland. Originally written for Tom Cruise, the script was retooled when Cruise backed out and Angelina Jolie filled the shoes of the titular character. Released into theaters at a runtime of 100 minutes, "Salt" suffered from a few major plot holes, specifically in the film's final scenes that killed some of the fun momentum it had built up. Now on DVD, director Phillip Noyce, a man known for his own memorable takes on spy action in the form of "Patriot Games" and "A Clear and Present Danger," gets to fix studio tinkering with a director's cut running only four minutes longer, but what an improvement those four minutes make. Also added, is a studio created "extended cut" that mixes elements of both versions, but jettisons both endings for a viscerally satisfying final scene that sadly spits in the face of the film that preceded it.
Jolie is quite the spectacle to behold here as the titular Salt, a CIA agent who is accused of being part of a Russian sleeper cell, by a KGB defector. Fearing for her life, she stages a daring escape from CIA headquarters, with Peabody (Chiwetel Ejiofor) in hot pursuit. Caught in the middle is her close friend and colleague, Ted Winter (Liev Schreiber) who may have to come to grips with the fact that his friend may not be who she seems. Salt's journey will take her up and down the Eastern seaboard in the middle of an assassination attempt on the Russian president to covert infiltrations of government buildings.
Noyce's direction creates a fine balance between the conspiracy thick plots of a Bourne film and the pure adrenaline of Bond film. Wimmer and Helgeland's script features a good number of twists and turns that will have viewers on their toes due in part to an inventive conspiracy angle and some action sequences that Noyce visualizes to mostly great effect. It's not a perfect script, with the intricacy of the plot being a little too much to swallow at times, especially when it gets to flashbacks involving children being trained to be Russian super spies. Likewise, Noyce makes the mistake of filming a few stunts so grandiose, that the use of CGI is blatantly obvious, making suspension of disbelief impossible. The biggest offender is an eye-rolling descent by Salt down an elevator shaft in hot pursuit of the car.
For the most part though, Jolie appears to be doing her own stunts and don't let her diminutive size fool you; she packs a mighty punch and is quite handy with any firearm at her disposal. Noyce's director's cut restores some extra violent bits, from blood spatters to a some crunching bones, pushing this film firmly into the soft-R category, a step-up form the theatrical rating of PG-13. One critical scene in particular changes a character's death from a simple shooting to an extended, sadistic drowning, which provides a much greater emotional impact on the viewer and other characters involved.
While Jolie shoulders the majority of the burden, Schreiber turns in a very good performance himself, playing a major part in the final act, It is a shame that Ejiofor is reduced to a few key scenes as he is always a fun presence in a film and here, one gets the distinct impression he's playing a modified version of his Operative character from "Serenity." Also impressive for his short screen time is Daniel Olbrychski as the KGB defector and purported secret spymaster; his character is an icy sadistic sleazebag and does a fine job of getting the necessary emotional responses from various characters.
Ultimately, "Salt" is a solid entry into the spy-action genre, making sure it doesn't take itself so seriously, that it becomes grating as the latter "Bourne" films had a tendency to do. Action fans should get their fix, despite the few, previously mentioned hokey stunts and Jolie confirms she can handle both the quiet and loud roles. It's good to see Sony has allowed Noyce to get his version out there, as it is a definite improvement over the theatrical release, elevating a C+ film to a B+ film, a textbook case of the power of the editing room and the danger of studio meddling.
The 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer features a fine level of detail with a minimal amount of grain present. Edge enhancement is kept to a barely noticeable minimum, while colors reflect a colder color palette. Contrast levels are spot on, with a number of dark, smoky sequences revealing the proper amounts of information.
The Dolby Digital English 5.1 audio track is a very strong, well-mixed outing. Surrounds are used effectively during the first chase sequence through the freeway, as well as some raid scenes. The score is kept appropriately mixed below sound effects and dialogue, which are all clear and distortion free. 5.1 French and English DVS tracks are also included as well as standard English stereo. Subtitles are featured in English, French, Spanish and English for the hearing impaired.
The two most substantial extras are a rather engaging commentary track from director Phillip Noyce as he discuses production as well as thematic inspirations for the film. Also included is a 30-minute radio interview with the director that covers some of the same topics, but is still worth a listen.
On the lighter side, we get two promotional minded, five-minute featurettes titled "The Ultimate Female Action Hero" focusing on Jolie's portrayal of the character and "Spy Disguise: The Looks of Evelyn Salt" a quick glimpse into the numerous costume changes.
"Salt" is a fine mix of action and conspiracy that should appeal to genre fans and casual viewers alike. Jolie turns in a fine performance, hitting the appropriate emotional beats and bringing the goods in the action department. The DVD release is a fine technical success that ensures all the chases, explosions and fights are seen and heard as intended. Recommended.