20 August 2010

Mutually Assured Distraction- SALT Review

As something of a regular disclaimer, it's only my opinion here- others are available. As ever, mild spoilers may occur in the process of reviewing, but never so far as to spoil any major plot developments.
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At the end of an underpowered summer for action films, here comes Salt, a bid to launch a female-centric spy franchise. While the most that Bond and Bourne ever find themselves accused of is going rogue for some personal reason or other, their latest would-be counterpart, CIA operative Evelyn Salt, is really put through the wringer when a defector accuses her of being a Russian sleeper agent on her wedding anniversary. Salt then tries to contact her husband while on the run from her friends and employers, as the clock counts down towards an assassination attempt on a major world leader.

I can only assume that writer Kurt Wimmer started dancing with joy at the recent discovery of Anna Chapman's covert presence on American soil, because otherwise his latest, this film, might have looked rather silly in its attempt to resurrect Russians as the international boogeymen. Either that, or Chapman was part of Sony's advertising campaign, in a double bluff worthy of this very film's second act.

It becomes clear very quickly once you get into Salt that not all is as it seems. Given the stupidity of Wimmer's post-Equilibrium scripts, such as Law Abiding Citizen and Ultraviolet, it's nice to see him actually putting together a suspenseful and massively entertaining action script like this one. And crucially for a script that relies on twists and turns, it's not entirely predictable.

Alright, maybe it's a mite predictable, in one small but potentially fatal aspect, especially as the film relies so much on the central enigma of who can and can't be trusted. Without spoiling anything, you need to watch more films on a certain actor's filmography if you're not simply waiting for him to turn heel in this one. But by holding most of the cards close to his chest, director Phillip Noyce keeps his audience captive while still refusing to let up with the action.

It's well directed and very functional action too, something that the likes of The A-Team and The Expendables have failed to deliver this year. Maybe it has the same problem as its more masculine alternatives, in that Angelina Jolie is a bit indestructible, but every character remains an equal opportunities ass-kicker. And although it feels patronising to say it, this film is markedly better for having a female lead.

For those who don't know, Evelyn Salt was originally Edwin Salt, a male operative who was at one point going to be played by Tom Cruise. He turned it down in the end because it was far too close to his role in Mission: Impossible for his liking. The surface similarities to Ethan Hunt are obvious when you watch the film, but so is the fact that Cruise or Hugh Jackman or any of the other established male action stars wouldn't quite cut it.


It's different not just because Jolie is a woman in the lead role, but because she's a woman in an action film, a usually thankless role that's repurposed competently and without lingering on how the lead performer is one of the sexiest women in the world, instead of the regressive matinee idol who made Knight and Day instead. Plotwise, this isn't the high drama of Changeling, but it's lightyears beyond than Jolie's outings as Lara Croft.

Hell, there's even a decent explanation of why Russians are suddenly the bad guys again, beyond some manner of residual American paranoia about Mutually Assured Destruction. A sleeper agent of the kind that's postulated here, once planted, takes time to come to fruition. In other words, it does just enough to assure audience members like me that some thought went into this, so I was able to just sit back and enjoy some great action scenes and some great suspense without any utterly stupid political intrusions on the part of the filmmakers.

For the first half-hour, Salt never lets up, and it makes for some of the best portion of what you want from a summer blockbuster I've seen all year. It's not in the class of Inception or Toy Story 3 for action setpieces and pacing, but it easily outdoes its more macho counterparts, like The Expendables. Jolie gives a surprisingly earnest performance throughout, and I only wish Noyce and Wimmer hadn't scheduled the most obvious twist at the very end. But if their goal was to launch a new spy franchise, they've succeeded- I'd much rather see Salt 2 than the continuing adventures of Barney Ross and his grumpy old mates.

Salt is now showing at cinemas nationwide.
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If and when you see Salt, why not leave a comment on the film and/or my review? Aren't you glad I didn't pepper the review with puns about salt?

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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