Saturday, 1 January 2011

Salt (Phillip Noyce, 2010) DVD Review

Angelina Jolie as Evelyn Salt, a possible Russian Spy, in Salt.

Review contains spoilers.

There's a lesson to be learned here, not to judge a book by its cover. When I watched the trailer for Salt early last Summer I was struck by how blindingly unoriginal and average it looked - Angelina Jolie in yet another unchallenging action role, unconvincingly stunning as a CIA agent who would seem more at home on a catwalk. As she runs to clear her name ("somebody's setting me up!") plot twist after plot twist will surely ensue until she kills the real spy and saves the day. Right? Well, actually, the answer is no. Screenwriter Kurt Wimmer is well known for writing films that are as dumb as a bag of hammers - Ultraviolet (Wimmer, 2006) and Law Abiding Citizen (F. Gary Gray, 2009) among them - but this time he's really taken an idea and run to the end of the world with it. There are plot holes you could drive a convoy through, muddled plot devices that are lost with no explanation, awkward exposition and characters that change motivation with the same casualness that they would take with an evening in and a bottle of wine. Salt, right down to it's ridiculous name, is utter tosh. But it's not the same tosh that the wonderfully misleading trailer would have you believe - it's something a little braver, a little more unconventional, and a little more exciting.

The first thirty minutes of Salt are post-Bourne mechanics in the slowest motion possible. After an all-too-brief prologue we are introduced to Evelyn Salt - a sturdy career woman enjoying a relationship with arachnid expert Mike Krause (August Diehl). But it's not long until she's called out as a Russian spy and goes on the run to clear her name. This part of the film is a clunkily routine action thriller that has tremendous actors such as Liev Schreiber and Chiwetel Ejiofor spouting dialogue such as "seal the security doors" and "lock down the elevator" like we're in a mid-90s Van Damme vehicle. As is now the norm we follow her through a couple of glossy, over-cut action sequences, doing impossible things while retaining every hair in place - and generally being impossibly beautiful. There are peppered references to other movies - a flick-knife shoe from From Russia With Love (Terence Young, 1963) and a wall-maneuvering sequence straight out of The Bourne Identity (Doug Liman, 2002), and all in all, it adds up to nothing. Cheesy, brightly-lit flashbacks bathe Evelyn in a caring, loving light - and ordinarily these would be the scenes that lazily attempt to add emotion to a characters plight. But in around ten minutes time Evelyn Salt will dye her hair black and become Natasha Chenkov, a Russian spy who was trained from childhood to complete a mission that would eventually destabilize the United States. She also extracts venom from a spider she specifically selected from her house, before the CIA blew the door down - but that's never mentioned again...

This is where the movie really comes into it's own. Despite remaining utterly ridiculous, it's actually a very interesting move to turn convention on its head and turn Angelina Jolie, the luscious long-haired action babe, into a largely silent, brooding villain, who assassinates the Russian President in an extended action sequence where she should have been killed about five times. If you're able to suspend disbelief then the next forty-five minutes may hold some rewards. If you don't, it's probably not worth a rental. After she escapes a high-speed pursuit with a taser (she literally just walks away) Salt/Chenkov meets her mentor and ringleader Orlov (Daniel Olbrychski) as they engage in some Russian stereotyping. She wears a big woolly hat while they both speak in silly accents and drink vodka - aboard a rusty ship. Yes, it's that kind of movie. But there are two twists in store here too - firstly the assassination of husband Mike (who we are told for no reason is an arachnid expert every five minutes), and secondly Salt's dispatch of the entire crew - including Orlov. From here, she sets out to assassinate the President Of The United States.

The script continues to pander and underestimate audience intelligence, while Noyce does a reasonable job of keeping up a brisk pace - although the lean 90 minute running time probably helps too. The plot twist revealed here is too silly for words, so I shan't bother discussing it. Instead, it's interesting to note the transformation of Jolie. There's an absurd plot development that requires her to disguise herself as a man (awful prosthetics ensue) but she also has to cut her hair short. This means that for the remainder of the film the normally strongly-feminine Jolie (even an action role like Tomb Raider, Simon West, 2001, saw her jiggling for the amusement of pre-pubescent fanboys) kills with a cropped, obsidian-black haircut, and a white shirt and trousers that conceal her curves in a way that, say, Wanted (Timur Bekmambetov, 2008) did not. It's a radically different look that instantly alters our perception of the star, her image becomes so violently warped. Barely speaking a word she storms through corridors assassinating the good guys, and doesn't blink an eye when the president actually is killed (not by her however). As she's being led away from the final crime scene, she executes a fellow comrade in a shockingly violent scene - as she hangs over a bannister with blood splattered across her face, the film feels surprisingly more confident and engaging - something darker than I had any right to expect upon viewing that first trailer.

The ending is equally silly, with an entire character seemingly abandoned for the sake of opening up for a sequel, but sat here now, writing this review, I'm pretty open to the idea. The first half is nonsense but by the time the conclusion came I was left with a stronger, bolder film than the opening suggests. It's a shame that first third is so shoddily retrograde because, despite the cliched exposition (text messaging is a poor device), rubbish CGI and muddled plot mechanics, the thrillingly brooding ending was one I'm totally onboard with, and a sequel could prove an interesting prospect...

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