Thursday, July 29, 2010

Salt: Well-seasoned

Salt (2010) • View trailer for Salt
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for action violence
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 7.29.10
Buy DVD: Salt (Deluxe Unrated Edition) • Buy Blu-RaySalt (Deluxe Unrated Edition) [Blu-ray]

Tom Cruise abandoned Salt during pre-production a few years ago, apparently in favor of Knight and Day.

Well, the joke's on him; Salt has all the suspenseful pep(per) that Cruise's incomprehensible summer vehicle lacked, not to mention a leading lady who knows how to sell this sort of popcorn action fare.
Although she's about to be late for a dinner date, Evelyn Salt (Angelina Jolie)
agrees to perform a snap assessment of a walk-in Russian defector claiming to
have good intel. Her boss, Ted Winter (Liev Schreiber, left), appreciates the
favor; the less generous Peabody (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the resident counter-
intelligence officer, figures such work is part of her job. Alas, Salt is about
to regret her compliance, when the defector's information cites her personally.

Indeed, pouty Angelina Jolie could turn this fast-paced thriller into a franchise, if she so desired; Phillip Noyce's slickly choreographed directorial control and Kurt Wimmer's twisty, engaging script give the actress ample opportunity to blossom in this femme fatale response to the "Bourne" series.

Yep, the action scenes have that sort of rugged, well edited pizzazz, starting with a stylish early chase scene that's every bit as breathtaking as Warren Beatty's frantic efforts to evade the bad guys at the end of 1972's $ (Dollars).

Better still, you won't be annoyed by Wimmer's screenplay, which opens with a clever premise, puts its resourceful leading lady into unexpected peril and then plays with us during the game-changing second and third acts. Espionage fans will be reminded of 1987's No Way Out, which is good company to keep.

Jolie stars as CIA operative Evelyn Salt, introduced while being tortured in a North Korean cell by interrogators convinced that she's a spy. (They're right, of course.)

Although resigned to her fate, Salt is surprised one day to be part of a prisoner exchange that restores her to American soil and the arms of her devoted lover, Mike (August Diehl), a mild-mannered spider researcher who kicked up such a public fuss that the CIA had no choice but to retrieve her, in order to shut him up.

Time passes. Evelyn and Mike marry, and she adjusts to the challenges of domestic bliss and CIA desk duty: no more field work, thank you very much. She demonstrates a talent for interrogation analysis, which one day prompts her boss and longtime friend Ted Winter (Liev Schreiber) to have her spot-check a newly arrived Russian defector.

Who, during the course of otherwise routine verbal sparring, accuses Salt of being a long-buried Russian "sleeper agent" waiting for the clandestine orders that will activate her into doing ... something dire.

The CIA has no choice but to take this accusation seriously. An immediate investigation is ordered by Peabody (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a CIA counter-intelligence agent, much to Winter's initial chagrin and mounting concern. Winter has known Salt for a long time, and finds the charges ridiculous; Peabody more intelligently assumes guilt until innocence can be proven.

Salt, alas, isn't willing to wait and hope for the best. Knowing full well how such investigations can tarnish and destroy family members  and further panicked by her inability to reach her husband  Salt escapes her cell, evades pursuers long enough to exit the CIA facility and tries to vanish.

Trouble is, Winter and Peabody are too good at their jobs. Noyce deftly orchestrates a sizzling foot and vehicular chase that gets additional snap from editors Stuart Baird and John Gilroy.

You'll scarcely have a chance to catch a breath.

When things do calm down  if only briefly  the inevitable questions begin to bubble up from Wimmer's tasty script. Is the defector's accusation accurate? If so, what is Salt really up to? And if it's merely psychologically shrewd disinformation, then why accuse Salt, as opposed to some other CIA operative? And why at this particular moment?

Could the timing be related to a pending visit by the Russian president, making the journey to pay his respects to the recently deceased American vice-president?

Noyce certainly knows the territory, having helmed the big-screen adaptations of the Tom Clancy thrillers Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger, both of which starred Harrison Ford as CIA analyst Jack Ryan. The proven formula involves dangling fresh information at regular intervals, while giving us viewers cause to doubt some or all of what already has taken place.

And maintaining a brisk pace, of course.

Noyce and Wimmer also pay attention to the little details. I can't tell you how pleased I was when Salt shed her impractical high heels, as all hell broke loose at CIA headquarters. Nothing is dumber  and nothing destroys credibility faster  than an actress who tries to run and fight in fragile, expensive Jimmy Choos.

Besides, engaging in the next several scenes barefoot adds the proper amount of vulnerability to Salt's character, as was the case with Bruce Willis' similarly shoeless John McClane in Die Hard. (Remember the broken glass? Ouch!)

Jolie's Evelyn Salt is the perfect character for this sort of high-level skullduggery, and the actress gets plenty of mileage from her smoldering, enigmatic gaze ... adding just enough mockery to leave us off-balance. Her rapport with Schreiber is solid, as well; Winter credibly agonizes as Salt's increasingly suspicious behavior gives him little choice but to declare her a wanted fugitive.

Ejiofor is equally persuasive as the dogged pursuer whose objectivity finally begins to slip, when he's unable to pigeonhole some of Salt's behavior according to logical expectations.

Indeed, all three actors  Jolie, Schreiber and Ejiofor  are quite skilled at projecting the intrinsic intelligence and verisimilitude that help suspend our disbelief. We're willing, as viewers, to let them take us for this bombastic ride, even when it becomes increasingly improbable; we sense that these performers will respect us, and not betray our trust. And we're right.

(Tom Cruise's utter failure to establish such a bond ultimately doomed Knight and Day.)

That said, Jolie's also persuasive with her character's more brutal and energetic qualities. In this post-La Femme Nikita world, drop-dead-gorgeous female spies have become increasingly popular; Jennifer Garner had quite a successful run on TV's Alias, and Piper Perabo undoubtedly will attract a similar fan base on the USA network's splashy new series, Covert Affairs.

The shortcoming they all share is the notion that such comparatively small women can so easily smack, punch, elbow, kick, chop, trip and head-butt much larger male opponents ... even two or three at a time. (As the saying goes, that's Hollywood.) To her credit, Jolie endures as good as she gives; Salt gets roughed up plenty while fighting, running, jumping, falling and generally abusing her poor self.

The Energizer Bunny ain't got nothin' on her.

Everything builds to a great climax in one of those impregnable underground bunkers beloved by movies of this ilk, and the 100-minute ride is engaging enough to warrant a return trip. With so many recent summer flops still leaving a bitter taste in their wake, it's refreshing to get a high-octane thriller that delivers on its promises.

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