I don’t know if anyone’s mentioned this before, but that Angelina Jolie, boy, she is one striking lady. She really does have an uncanny ability to command a camera any time she steps in front of one. In her new movie SALT, the effect is magnified, seeing as how she happens to be standing in front of a camera that is being wielded by one of the world’s greatest cinematographers, Robert Elswit (who shot all of Paul Thomas Anderson’s movies and most of George Clooney’s.) Actually, she’s not doing much standing here, but instead running throughout the majority of SALT’s running time, dodging moving vehicles and speeding bullets and loud explosions, but through it all, Elswit never loses track of the movie’s main draw.
This being the internet, you don’t have to look far to read everyone from profound critical types to adolescent droolers and one-handed typers rhapsodizing over Angelina Jolie’s features, particularly her mouth, which consists of full lips and a sly, unpredictable smile. But in truth, the main feature which makes her a born movie star are her eyes. She has eyes which register huge onscreen, and which make you interested to know what she’s thinking. And that’s a large part of why SALT is so effective.
For a good length of the movie, you don’t know what the main character, Evelyn Salt, is thinking. Salt is a super-competent CIA agent who is accused by a captive Russian spymaster (played by veteran Polish actor Daniel Olbrychski) of being a sleeper agent for the KGB, which immediately puts her at odds with her mentor, Winter (played by the great Liev Schreiber) and his colleague, Peabody (played by the great Chiwetel Ejiofor.) The Russian spymaster is named Orlov, which immediately made me think of NOSFERATU, which, if intentional, is only one of SALT’s gloriously over-the-top touches that is played totally straight by several great actors and is therefore totally convincing.
Salt claims to be innocent, but she refuses to sit still for the standard interrogation, claiming that she needs to get home to protect her husband (and dog). This is how the chase begins. Winter and Peabody and a small army of heavily-armored agents chase Salt throughout New York City, unable to trust her motives. That’s pretty much the plot. What makes the chase so thrilling and rewarding is the tenor of the thing: We the audience are kept at emotional arm’s distance the whole way, even as we’re given front-row seats to the excellently-staged action. We look in those evocative eyes of Angelina’s and we want to see a good guy there, but we can’t quite trust it, and a couple of very reliable character actors are being convinced on our behalf that she is indeed on the wrong side. Salt’s very behavior begins to be suspect, even though Angelina couldn’t really be a bad guy, now, could she? Could she really be Russian? Are the Russians really still out to get us? (Apparently…) And does Salt really care about that husband after all?
(Maybe not: It’s another canny move on the filmmakers’ part that the husband who Salt is racing to get back to isn’t exactly a perfect dream. He’s written and shot sympathetically, but he’s also a German entomologist, which means he loves bugs and he’s German. This ain’t exactly Brad Pitt here.)
SALT is a movie about consummate professionals that also happens to be made by consummate professionals. The fast-moving script is by action screenwriter Kurt Wimmer, with uncredited rewrites by Demon’s Resume favorite Brian Helgeland. The effective score is by James Newton Howard. The film was edited by a trio of expert editors, Stuart Baird, John Gilroy, and Steven Kemper. And at the helm is director Phillip Noyce, the strangely-underrated Australian craftsman, who is best known here for his two Jack Ryan movies with Harrison Ford (PATRIOT GAMES and CLEAR AND PRESENT DANGER.) Noyce also made a much smaller movie back in his native Australia called RABBIT-PROOF FENCE, which is a special little film that I highly recommend. RABBIT-PROOF FENCE is the work of a director who is interested in human beings, not just the espionage and action and suspense and machinery that he is obviously so skilled in capturing on film. That’s the human touch that he brings to SALT, along with the performance he gets out of his lead actress – fiery yet cold, sensitive yet emotionless, tender yet violent.
It’s interesting that, as all the pre-release press has mentioned, SALT was originally meant to star Tom Cruise. If I hadn’t have known that, I wouldn’t have thought it. It doesn’t feel like a Tom Cruise movie. SALT is definitely a star vehicle, and it plays perfectly to the strengths of its star. Angelina Jolie is the main reason that people will (hopefully) come out to see SALT, along with the thoroughly satisfying action setpieces, and having seen it, it’s hard to imagine it with any other lead actor. I thought that KNIGHT & DAY was ultimately the better choice for Tom Cruise – even though, despite it working pretty well as a star vehicle in its own right, it hasn’t really caught on with audiences. A good star vehicle has to serve its lead actor, to bring out what you love or find interesting about them while still finding ways to surprise you.
SALT is a great star vehicle for Angelina Jolie. It’s convincingly badass yet more emotional than the average spy thriller. I don’t know anyone who isn’t an Angelina fan, but in case you somehow aren’t, please give SALT a chance anyway, and do it on the big screen. After the tidal wave caused last week by INCEPTION, it’s hard to imagine where action movies can go next. Maybe right now and for the time being, the only way to compete is to be thoroughly competent. SALT does that. It’s a great time at the movies, a BOURNE movie with a feminine twist, and if it’s successful enough to earn a sequel, I’d be very happy to see one.