There are great action movies (Die Hard, Hard-Boiled), and then there are highly entertaining action movies (Unleashed, anything directed by Rob Cohen) that keep adrenaline junkies entertained in the downtime before the next true classic arrives. A compact, streamlined espionage thriller from screenwriter Kurt Wimmer and director Phillip Noyce, Salt would never be mistaken for the former, though it snaps into the latter category with the snug click of a perfectly placed Lego. No one who sits through Salt is likely to die of boredom, though they might exit the theater a little sore due to laughing at one of the most ridiculously unconvincing movie disguises in recent memory. But plausibility isn’t generally high on the list of crucial ingredients for cooking up an entertaining action flick, and thanks to a quickly paced script and some cleverly executed twists, Salt satisfies the craving for greasy fast-food cinema.
Two years after being captured in North Korea and tortured as a suspected spy, top CIA agent Evelyn Salt (Angelina Jolie) is about to celebrate her second wedding anniversary to arachnologist Mike (August Diehl) when she is accused by a terminally ill Russian defective of being a sleeper agent for the Russian government. Desperate to clear her name and protect her husband, Salt takes flight, raising the suspicions of up-and-coming CIA agent Peabody (Chiwetel Ejiofor) even as her mentor, Winter (Liev Schreiber), insists that the accusation is unfounded. Now, in order for Salt to clear her name, she must outrun and outwit both the Secret Service and the CIA, all while uncovering information on a diabolical plot to breathe a big chill back into the Cold War with a high-profile assassination. The longer Salt eludes capture, the higher the stakes get.
Shortly after co-writing the screenplay for The Thomas Crown Affair (alongside Leslie Dixon), Kurt Wimmer established himself as a rising force in the realm of over-the-top action cinema by jumping into the director’s chair for Equilibrium and Ultraviolet, two sci-fi flicks that took ridiculous to delirious new heights. In 2003, Wimmer edged into espionage territory as screenwriter of the lukewarmly received CIA thriller The Recruit, and now he’s teamed with director Noyce to deliver a high-stakes spy thriller that’s short on originality, yet bristling with intensity. This time Wimmer seems to have modeled his script on a roller coaster, allowing the butterflies to flutter in our stomachs as we slowly creep up that up that first giant hill, then maintaining an impressive momentum until the ride stops and we exit our seats. And while there’s nothing particularly inventive about a story driven by lingering Cold War tensions, sleeper agents, and assassination plots, Wimmer does manage to sneak in some savory particulars while delving into the details of a top-secret Russian program to topple the United States as a superpower, and to throw a few expertly-placed third-act sucker punches.
If only Noyce’s talents as an action director were better matched to Wimmer’s particular abilities as a storyteller, perhaps Salt would have been a bit more than a passable diversion. A talented filmmaker with an eye for detail, Noyce handles the dialogue and setup quite well -- eliciting a palpable sense of vertigo during a tense ledge escape early on, and employing sharp diversionary tactics during a suspenseful funeral scene that kicks the plot into high gear -- but the deeper he wades into the action, the more apparent it becomes that shoot-outs and car chases aren’t exactly his forte. Like most action directors these days, Noyce refuses to give viewers a real sense of space by sticking primarily to close-up shots when things start to get hairy, a factor that prevents us from truly connecting with the kinetic events unfolding onscreen. But Noyce is quite good with actors, eliciting performances from Jolie, Schreiber, Ejiofor, and Daniel Olbrychski that go a long way in counter-balancing the hastily helmed action sequences.
Odds are, Salt won’t be the launching point for a hugely successful blockbuster action series a la The Bourne Identity -- as the filmmakers so clearly intended with the shamelessly open ending -– but until the next time we truly taste greatness, it’s digestible enough to trick our stomachs into thinking we’ve feasted on filet mignon and fine wine, when in reality we’ve just wolfed down some chicken-fried steak and a chocolate shake.
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- Released: 2010
- Rating: PG-13
- Review: There are great action movies (Die Hard, Hard-Boiled), and then there are highly entertaining action movies (Unleashed, anything directed by Rob Cohen) that keep adrenaline junkies entertained in the downtime before the next true classic arrives. A compact… (more)