Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Review - Salt

The advertising campaign for Salt has repeatedly asked a single question: Who is Salt? Well, depending on who you believe, Evelyn Salt is a highly trained but otherwise ordinary CIA operative or an undercover Russian spy planning to commit a political assassination (or both). Similarly, depending on who you ask, Phillip Noyce's film is a silly and clich├ęd piece of nonsense or a beautifully made and generally riveting thriller (or both!). In judging the film, I tend to slide towards the positive camp, even if I can see the picture's glaring flaws. As soon as the film had finished I began to analyse the plot in my head, and it immediately fell to pieces as I questioned the motives and decisions made by the characters, and some of the twists concocted by screenwriter Kurt Wimmer. But all of that took place after the movie, and for every one of Salt's pleasingly efficient 100 minutes, I was gripped.

Salt succeeds because it doesn't allow its propulsive momentum to slacken. The plot kicks into gear early on, with Evelyn Salt (played by Angelina Jolie) being identified as a Russian spy by the KGB defector (Daniel Olbrychski) she is interrogating. Her colleague Ted Winter (Liev Schreiber) doesn't believe a word of it, but Counterintelligence agent Peabody (Chiwetel Ejiofor) wants to do things by the book and hold her for questioning – some chance. As soon as Salt's identity becomes the subject of debate, she's out of there, fashioning a handy explosive device, MacGyver-style, and breaking past the SWAT team sent to take her down with consummate ease. She races into the street with Winter and Peabody in pursuit and her motives unclear. Is she planning to kill the visiting Russian President, or is she just a desperate woman out to clear her name?

The obvious antecedent for Salt is the Bourne movies, with this film's protagonist outthinking, outfighting and outrunning her pursuers in a manner that feels very familiar. What distinguishes Salt from those pictures is the measured directorial style of Phillip Noyce, which is the polar opposite to the hectic, rapidly edited handheld approach of Paul Greengrass. With two Jack Ryan adaptations under his belt, Noyce is an old hand at this kind of political thriller, and with Salt he keeps the action coherent and slick while maintaining a lively tempo. Aided by fine camerawork from the ever-excellent Robert Elswit and James Newton Howard's imposing (and undeniably Bourne-like) score, Noyce stages some superb, fluid action sequences here. The long motorway chase scene is pulled off with real panache, as is a late assault on a less-than-secure White House bunker, but Noyce's wisest filmmaking choice is to recognise that his greatest asset is his leading lady.

This is a great movie star performance from Angelina Jolie. Salt was conceived as a vehicle for Tom Cruise, but when he pulled out, the decision to rewrite the lead character and give it to Jolie was a masterstroke. While utterly convincing as a woman who can go toe-to-toe with any male antagonist and win, she also brings a gracefulness and vulnerability to the role that freshens up the potentially mundane plot. Noyce frames her like a star, frequently resting his camera on her face to let her play the character's ambiguity, and she responds with a magnetic central performance driven by her extraordinary screen charisma. Salt may be built around a narrative that feels like it has been ripped out of an early-90's thriller (Russians! Double agents! Nuclear war!), but Noyce ensures it never skips a beat, and Jolie's presence is enough to make it seem like something excitingly new.