On Salt

Salt, featuring Angelina Jolie, is a spy action thriller film set within a Cold War atmosphere, as according to Mostly Movies‘ article, “Salt Movie Review: That Old Cold War Feeling“:

The Cold War fed the subject matter of action films, thrillers, and their sub-genre of international intrigue for decades. The James Bond series, the Jack Ryan films, and countless others all have the standoff between the USA and the Soviet Union to thank for their storylines. When tensions eased between the Eastern Bloc and the West, Hollywood lost fodder for their go-to villains. In the wake of 9/11 and the global War on Terror we might have thought that Arabs would supplant the Communists as Global Enemy Number 1. In some sense they have, but with only a handful of examples, it seems an elevated sense of political correctness has prevented it.

So here we have Salt, an action movie directed by Phillip Noyce (who not so incidentally directed two of those Jack Ryan pictures) that plays on the residual effects of Cold War paranoia, and in so doing dodges the more contemporary and important issue of Muslim extremism. The only reference in the film to Muslims is in the villainous plot to launch American nuclear weapons on Tehran and Mecca, setting off a violent confrontation between the Middle East and the US out of which Russia hopes to rise from the ashes as the new dominant force in global politics.

On second thought, perhaps political correctness has nothing to do with it. It could be something more primal, like the desire to have a rational enemy whom we could count on to make decisions that are logical and not fanatical. The Soviet Union and the USA were deadlocked in a power struggle to maintain economic hegemony over their respective dominions. Muslim extremism has no such grand aspirations. How does a government logically face down enemies who are willing to blow themselves up to achieve their ends? With that in mind, Salt is a light-hearted and naïve throwback to a bygone era.

The premise is that the Soviet Union once installed sleeper agents, well versed in American patriotism and culture, but also in Soviet ideology and fervor, from childhood, who must insinuate themselves into high level positions waiting for the moment they get the go-ahead to orchestrate their attack, known in the intelligence community as Day X (obviously taking a note from James Cameron’s rules for screenwriting if you remember the precious substance Unobtainium in Avatar). This is the story told by Orlov, a Russian spy who claims that Lee Harvey Oswald was the first success that led to the creation of the full program. If this sounds a little bit like The Manchurian Candidate it’s not just because Salt also stars Liev Schreiber, who was the title character in the remake of the John Frankenheimer classic. But instead of just one, Salt has a dozen or so.

A similar atmosphere appears in Stargate SG-1,  such as in episodes “Small Victories,” “The Tomb,” “Watergate,” and “Crusade.”

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Additionally, the character of Evelyn Salt can also be considered an ambiguous action heroine, as according to Village Voice‘s article, “Salt‘s Jolie: The First (Ambiguous) Action Heroine“:

Salt, famously the Spy Flick Rewritten for Angelina Jolie After Tom Cruise Dropped Out, has been publicized as the cinematic equivalent of the 19th Amendment: finally, a level playing field for female action stars! This is mostly bullshit, of course—Jolie’s Evelyn Salt is not the first action hero to be given a gender reassignment between initial conception and opening weekend (cough, Alien), nor is this the first stunt-heavy film Jolie has carried on her back and sold on her name. What is startling about Salt is the extent to which, in insisting on the moral ambiguity of its protagonist for most of its running time, it gives us an action-hero prototype that Cruise couldn’t play and Jolie was born to.

Ambiguity itself is something Cruise just doesn’t do—maybe that’s why, for 30 years, haters/fans have devoted so much energy to speculating about his supposed secret sex life. But Jolie is all about ambiguity and always has been. She’s an Oscar winner and an action star, a husband-stealing tattooed pin-up and an orphan-adopting mom of six. In the first scene of Salt, she is tortured by North Korean prison guards while wearing a bra and panties, her long, blond locks stained with blood like a vixen from an exploitation flick. From the start, this character plays to the star’s strengths, merging subject and object, warrior and victim, ass-kicker and damsel-in-distress.

And hero and villain. A trusted member of a CIA team led by Ted Winter (Liev Schreiber), Salt is outed as a Russian double agent by Orlov (Daniel Olbrychski), her supposed comrade, who essentially just strolls into a covert CIA outpost and accuses her of treason. Salt’s colleagues, taking Orlov at his word, slip into ’70s-film paranoia mode and initiate an all-hands manhunt; Salt runs, managing to stay a step ahead of the feds and several steps ahead of the audience, all the while laying waste to dozens on either side of the apparent with-us/against-us divide.

Coded by that first virtuous victim scene as the good guy, early on Salt starts acting like a bad guy, and screenwriter Kurt Wimmer and director Phillip Noyce are in no hurry to clear up the matter of their ostensible protagonist’s true allegiance. Eschewing any of the usual tricks and winks to let us know we can trust her, that her moral compass renders her many crimes as collateral damage in the interest of the greater good, the filmmakers imbue what at first seem to be rote action devices with unexpected psychological gravitas. Not until the final scene does Salt unambiguously spell out how we’re meant to feel about all that’s come before. Compared to a film like Inception, which is forever stopping to explain to us what we’ve just seen, this feels like an incredible show of restraint.

If Jolie’s star persona has something to do with Salt‘s muddling of moral binaries, her gender inspires little in the way of action-hero subversion. Her physical disadvantage as a smaller human being is ignored—in fact, when it comes to hand-to-hand combat, she seems to be the only fighter on either side who fully knows what she’s doing. And the filmmakers are not above condescendingly winking at the notion of feminine wiles. When she needs to hide from a security camera, she removes her panties and tosses them over the lens; when she needs to improvise a weapon, she concocts an explosive out of everyday items any gal might find in her cleaning pantry and medicine cabinet. She may be invincible, but her number-one ace in the hole seems to be that she can always convince smitten men they can fuck her.

So let’s not give this gambit more credit than it deserves—Salt is not particularly politically or socially progressive; stylistically, the best that can be said is that Noyce elegantly mashes up post-Bourne shaky-cam p.o.v. with gilded bombast straight out of his own ’90s Jack Ryan films. Its conception of world affairs would seem hopelessly retrograde if the U.S. hadn’t hauled in a sleeper cell of Russian spies, like, last week. That this is a would-be franchise-launcher becomes clear when the first end title card interrupts Jolie mid-dash to what we presume would have been the final action set piece; it’s only at that moment that we understand we’ve been watching an origin story, a primer on who this antihero is and how she came to be the only thing standing in the way of the nuclear annihilation of Mecca (yes, seriously). That it flatters the audience by assuming a modicum of intelligence earns points if we’re grading on a curve, but this is still closer to product than art. Highly satisfying, often exhilarating, refreshingly unpretentious product.

According to the Empire review:

How Angelina Jolie and Phillip Noyce must have smiled inwardly and breathed a massive sigh of relief when the FBI finally managed to do something right and round up that group of, frankly, inept Russian sleeper spies back at the end of June. Because, until then, the concept of Salt — the thriller which reunites the director/star pairing some ten years after they first teamed up for The Bone Collector — seemed like a distant dream, a preposterous fantasy world, the sort of off-the-top-of-a-screenwriter’s head nonsense that makes your dad shake his head on a Sunday afternoon viewing and mutter darkly, “That’s far-fetched.” After all, it revolves around the idea of Russian sleeper spies, buried deep within the upper echelons of American government, ready to shed their cover at a moment’s notice and strike at the heart of the Great Satan.

Now, thanks to Anna Chapman and her Commie cronies, Salt doesn’t seem so far-fetched, after all. Having said that, if Chapman and her pals are ever allowed to clap eyes on the movie, they’ll recognise virtually nothing about their mundane lives. Not for Jolie’s Evelyn Salt the day-to-day drudgery of form-filling, light bureaucracy and keeping up appearances. Instead, this is the sort of post-Bourne spy who considers it all in a day’s work to bounce off bridges onto moving trucks, casually wipe out a squadron of trained assassins, and change her appearance more often than presenters on The One Show switch channels. Or, perhaps, that should be allegiance.

For — and here comes that promised spoiler — in just the first hint that the sands of Salt are going to shift more often than your average blockbuster, it’s soon revealed that Salt may, after all, be a Russkie plant, the sort you can’t pull up without causing serious damage. From this moment on, the film lurches enjoyably into the unknown, as we’re invited to consider the prospect of Angelina Jolie, not as a heroine, but as a villain. Or, truth be told, something inbetween, as Noyce, that old stager, revels in keeping the audience guessing on Salt’s motivations and actions, even when she appears to be up to her gorgeous neck not so much in derring do as derring shouldn’t.

All of which wouldn’t be possible without Jolie. After all, this is a film that revolves almost entirely around her, with her valiant supporting actors — Liev Schreiber and Chiwetel Ejiofor as the CIA agents dedicated to cutting her down — for the most part reduced to standing around and admiring her incredible, crazy, death-defying antics. And when it comes to selling incredible, crazy, death-defying antics, Jolie has few peers in the action business. And we’re including the guys in that. Whether it’s been the disappointing Tomb Raider series, or abseiling down a skyscraper in a corset in Mr. & Mrs. Smith, or flipping a car over a bus in Wanted, Jolie has been a dominating, vital presence in action movies for almost a decade.

And that continues here, with her on impressively steely form as Salt, convincing completely with action sequences in which she escapes from a moving cop car by using a taser in a manner that would surely invalidate the warranty, or manages to get down a lift shaft without actually waiting for the lift to arrive. Particularly in the movie’s second half, when Salt barely utters a word, it’s a performance that rests entirely on Jolie’s natural presence and physicality. It’s at times like this that Jolie brings a freshness to the character and the action that the tried and tested Tom Cruise — who was attached to Kurt Wimmer’s much sought-after screenplay back when she was a he, ultimately rejecting it because of similarities to his Mission: Impossible character, Ethan Hunt — might not. If Anna Chapman had done anything like this, chances are she’d have lasted about five minutes.

But it’s not just a part that trades on movie-star charisma, gym-honed elasticity and the kind of glaring stare that could make men twice her size think twice about having a go. Salt requires Jolie to act, initially as the demure, blonde-haired office jockey we first meet. Then, as the plot thickens, Jolie does a nice line in panic as Salt fears for the safety of her arachnologist husband (August Diehl, with a floppy-fringed makeover designed to eradicate any memories of his Inglourious Basterds SS officer), who goes conveniently missing at the same time as Salt is, potentially, activated.

It’s a shame, then, that the movie Noyce constructs around her isn’t quite as rewarding. His track record with CIA movies has been impeccable, with The Quiet American following on from the Jack Ryan double-bill of Patriot Games and Clear And Present Danger, but those films were all, by and large, grounded in the real world, with fairly plausible plot twists. And, despite the real-world intrusion which might give licence to the premise, the film itself is so littered with implausible plot twists, stunts and characters acting out of character that it’s all become a little daft even before we’re expected to buy into a sequence in which Jolie tries to pass herself off as a bloke. That the tone throughout remains deadly serious doesn’t help.

Noyce, directing large-scale action for the first time since Val Kilmer’s outing as The Saint, handles the more outlandish set-pieces, but is burdened by a need to humanise his heroine; a need that manifests itself in an unfortunate over-reliance on unintentionally hilarious flashbacks which show Salt, disguised as an improbably hot spider enthusiast, clumsily falling in love with Diehl, thus giving her a potential Get Out Of Jail Free card. And, admirable and brave though some of Noyce’s story choices are, it’s a lot easier to root for an adorable blonde who we think has been framed, than wrestle with our consciences while a cold-blooded, gun-toting brunette commits, or seems to commit, crimes against the state. For a while, Salt doesn’t have a protagonist it’s easy to get on side with. The consequence being there’s a black hole at the middle of the picture.

Happily, light manages to escape this particular black hole in the form of a third act revolving around a good, old-fashioned tussle between virtue and evil as loyalties waver and secrets are revealed. (Secrets that might not necessarily shock anyone who’s been paying a blind bit of notice, but secrets nonetheless.)

But, gaping flaws and all, at just 95 minutes Salt fairly races along (we suspect that there’s a whole DVD’s-worth of deleted material kicking around on a Culver City cutting-room floor), and while Noyce and Jolie bat breathlessly from explosion to car chase to shoot-out, there’s just about enough fun here to make a second helping of Salt a relatively palatable prospect.

Enjoyable enough nonsense, even if it barely cracks a smile. It’s not exactly the female Bourne we were hoping for. Still, Noyce marshals the crunches and bangs well, and it zips along at a pace sufficient enough to keep the paranoia alive. Never entirely predictable — a bonus these days — it’s further confirmation of Jolie’s action goddess status.

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2 thoughts on “On Salt

  1. Pingback: On The Bourne Surpremacy | The Progressive Democrat

  2. Pingback: On The Bourne Legacy | The Progressive Democrat

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