Friday, July 23, 2010

Scary Spice: SALT

If nothing else, Salt proves that movie star driven filmmaking can still work when given a tight script, solid craftsmanship and an exciting premise. Luckily, it’s also an elegant, exhilarating spy movie, a throwback to simpler times when the Russians were our clear-cut Cold War enemies and a wholehearted embrace of cutting-edge techno-gadgets and shiny modern surfaces. But it’s mostly about the movie star who fills nearly every scene with megawatt presence.

Angelina Jolie plays Evelyn Salt, a C.I.A. agent who is accused of being a Russian spy. She claims innocence, but then takes off running. She’s not an easy protagonist, distant and uncommunicative once the action gets going. We don’t see her in many soft moments, nor does she explain herself on the rare occasions that she stops to catch her breath. She always seems to be one step ahead of us, and it’s fun to try and catch up. Jolie is much different here than her last solo action effort, the two Lara Croft: Tomb Raider movies from nearly 10 years ago in which she was called upon to do little more than fill a tight T-shirt while posing her way through elaborate special effects. Here Jolie delivers layers of ambiguity and holds her own in striking close ups that play up her high cheek-bones and her ability to look severe one moment and fragile the next. She’s a remarkably nuanced action hero, made all the more remarkable by how the movie is so willing to make her look so cool.

Evelyn Salt is a mix of LeCarre’s career spies and Jason Bourne, with a dash of The Manchurian Candidate for added flavor, but none of the above were clever, fashionable, capable women. She’s a striking image to see dashing across the screen. She’s running full speed through dangerous stunts, delivering punches and kicks while bouncing off the walls or darting through traffic. She’s clever and resourceful, pulling off surprising escapes. Salt is undeniably awesome. The movie may not always let the audience in on her plans, but I still really wanted her to succeed. Salt is pursued by C.I.A. agents played by Liev Schreiber and Chiwetel Ejiofor, who happen to be two consistently undervalued performers. They bring weight and shades of gray to what could easily have become nothing more than a pair of forgettable foils. The way they balance out the conflicts in the movie (they have to catch her, but could they trust her claim to innocence?) reminded me of Tommy Lee Jones in The Fugitive. They’re not quite up to that level – the script doesn’t allow them that opportunity – but they’re close.

The film careens through tense action beats and all kinds of twisty spy skullduggery. (Even Lee Harvey Oswald is name-dropped). All the while, it makes good use of Jolie’s simultaneous vulnerability and distance, her essential apparent unknowableness. She’s both our anchor and our source of doubt. We care about her survival even though we don’t even know if we can believe her. Director Phillip Noyce has made films across different genres over the course of his career while never enforcing a strong auteur vision on the projects. He has a fine eye for action and a good sense of narrative clarity. Here, he’s working from an enjoyable and efficient script from Kurt Wimmer. It’s a film with hardly any wasted space; the whole thing’s over in barely 100 minutes. This is solid, engaging action filmmaking.

It’s not often that a movie of any kind leaves me anxious for a follow-up, especially a non-franchise property like Salt (though I’d bet Sony is hoping for a Bourne-style franchise in-the-making), but I would have watched the sequel right then and there when the end credits stopped rolling. This movie has such a strong sense of momentum that it flies right into the credits while still speeding forward. Leaving the multiplex, I practically jogged to my car.

No comments:

Post a Comment