Friday, July 30, 2010

'Salt' is an unapologetically old school thriller

With all this talk of Russian spies in the media it is somewhat fitting that the unapologetically old school action film “Salt” centers around whether a CIA agent is a possible Russian spy. Of course it is mere coincidence that our old Cold War rival is making headlines again, but the cynic in me thinks, “Wow, look at all the free promotion 'Salt' is getting.”

“Salt” yearns for the world of the 1980s and early 1990s where it was clear who the bad guys were: Russia. Although the film takes itself seriously, this is not a serious film. It is an efficient one, though, and in the green era that has to count for something.

The film opens where a lot of films would end with Angelina Jolie's Evelyn Salt being tortured in North Korea only to be rescued in a prisoner exchange thanks to the efforts of her future husband (August Diehl).

Jump ahead a couple years and Salt is called into interrogate a Russian defector (Daniel Olbrychski). In a lengthy bit of exposition, the defector explains a program in which Russia trained children to be spies that they then planted in the United States to wait for the arrival of Day X in which Russia would rise to power again. Salt is then informed she was part of this program and will kill the Russian president.

The rest of the of film is an extended chase where we discover that Salt has abilities that would put Jason Bourne and James Bond to shame. Like Matt Damon in the “Bourne” movies, once Jolie enters action mode she becomes a woman of few words.

When she goes on the run her colleagues are left to question her allegiances. Her friend and fellow CIA agent Liev Schreiber defends her to FBI man Chiwetel Ejiofor. Then Salt's actions even make Schreiber turn on her.

The screenplay by Kurt Wimmer does a good job of making it unclear whose side she is on. For a good part of the running time we aren't even sure what Salt is up to and the film doesn't tell us. Wimmer and director Phillip Noyce respect the audience's intelligence enough to let us figure it out on our own.

Back in the 1990s, Noyce directed two of the film versions of Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan novels, “Patriot Games” and “Clear and Present Danger,” so as a filmmaker he is on familiar territory. Noyce chooses practical effects and real stunt work over computer generated and enhanced effects. It is nice to see car chases with actual cars and people. A particularly thrilling chase involves Jolie jumping along the tops of trucks along a busy highway.

Jolie continues to prove herself to be an apt and believable action hero. Her career has been balancing big budget action films with films that show off her serious acting chops. She always seems most comfortable on camera in films like “Salt” perhaps because it is clear she has so much fun playing with guns and kicking butt.

Schreiber and Ejiofor are hardly household names, but will be recognized by audience. They are actor that fall into the oh-that-guy category. Both are two of the most reliable actors working today. Their presence in the film helps immensely in grounding the film in reality even when plot developments border on absurd.

This isn't a great film, but it is an enjoyable one while it is on the screen. My only problem is that the end is just a shameless plug for the inevitable sequel. I understand Hollywood is constantly looking for the next franchise, but “Salt” doesn't even try to disguise the fact that that's what it is doing.

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