Angelina Jolie is the only true female action star. She can sell it and people will buy it. She can be sexy and tough-as-nails at the same time. She has a knack for choosing high-adrenaline pictures. And yet, when you examine her resume, Jolie has yet to lead an action film that has cemented its place in the lore of the genre. Salt, her newest action movie, doesn't change matters. In fact, it is largely a huge disappointment.
The Tomb Raider movies were pretty bad. Mr. and Mrs. Smith was good but not exactly a classic. Wanted was entertaining but ultimately unremarkable. None of these - save for Wanted in some circles - are considered action classics, nor will they be in years' time. Unfortunately, Salt, directed by established director Philip Noyce (Patriot Games, Clear and Present Danger, Rabbit-Proof Fence, The Quiet American), makes these movies look like classics. Salt has a great premise that is ruined by an inane plot and surprisingly flat delivery.
Kudos to the marketing department for making Salt look like a legitimate summer action thriller worthy of a big opening weekend. Jolie plays the title character, a CIA operative who is assigned to interrogate an alleged Russian defector. His story seems fanciful until he names the undercover Russian spy who is going to assassinate the Russian president in New York: Evelyn Salt. Salt goes on the run, presumably to prove her innocence, but things may or may not be what they seem.
The trailers promised lots of slick action and a twisting plot, and in many ways, Salt delivers. Unfortunately, the quality it delivers is questionable at best, as the action is shaky and the plot absurdly unrealistic.
Having directed two Jack Ryan movies, Noyce knows how to make gritty action movies, which makes it all the more confusing that Salt comes across as so flat. It appears that Noyce (and Sony Pictures) was gunning for a female version of Jason Bourne, but The Bourne Identity this movie is not. The camera shakes through action scene after action scene, but Noyce fails to capitalize on the scenes' settings or the characters involved. Even during close-ups, the action seems distant and is hard to follow; Salt feels like a cheap imitation of a Paul Greengrass flick. Where Jason Bourne can pull off just about any feat, his world and actions feel realistic; Evelyn Salt's actions are forced and over-the-top, the character an invincible vixen who consistently defies the bounds of relaity.
Salt also feels cheap. The special effects are fine, but the movie's editing is questionable. More importantly, and more noticeable, is the incredibly weak score and soundtrack; the movie sounds like a TV movie, and that impression distracts from what's happening on screen. Interestingly, composer James Newton Howard is also responsible for work on The Dark Knight, an action movie with one of the best scores in recent memory.
Despite the movie's on-screen deficiencies, the real problem lies in the script by inconsistent Kurt Wimmer (The Thomas Crown Affair, but also Ultraviolet and Law Abiding Citizen). Salt is the perfect example of a movie created by people who believe it's a lot smarter than it really is. It was marketed as a twisty spy thriller - which it is - but it is an incredibly stupid one. Salt rarely makes sense; it's not confusing, but it is confounding that so many plot holes can appear in a single movie.
The biggest problem is that Wimmer wrote the movie with the intention to fool the audience, rather than to deliver an effective thriller. Evelyn Salt's motivations throughout the movie are masked by the filmmakers so that the audience is left hanging. This has an extremely negative effect on allowing the audience to get involved with the characters. Salt is the main character, but not until the end do you find out whether she's actually a good guy or a bad guy (though it's pretty obvious from the beginning whose side she's on). Because of this mystery, Wimmer refuses to dive into Jolie's character and explain her motivations - and it's hard to get into a movie when you don't know whether you can trust the main character. SPOILER ALERTS. When she first goes on the run, the movie is enjoyable; when she "flips" sides (without any explanation), Salt goes down quickly. She shows little emotion when her husband is murdered right in front of her (the same man she was desperately trying to save only moments before), and her drive for all subsequent actions aren't explained until the climax. The climax, and the final twist, are completely out of left field and leaves a bad taste in your mouth.
Because Salt keeps its main character at a distance, Jolie isn't able to deliver a complete character. The Bourne movies have been successful for many reasons, but one of them is the deep dive into Jason Bourne's psyche. The audience knows his motivations for doing what he's doing and their understanding of the character shifts gradually as he develops throughout the film. In Salt, the audience isn't able to do this and Jolie isn't able to reveal her true emotions. Her performance - which doesn't include much dialogue after the first act - suffers as a result. She and her character lack the intensity necessary for a picture like this. Love him or hate him, but Tom Cruise, who was originally slated for the lead role, would have brought an entirely different level of energy to the character.
Despite all its faults, Salt is a watchable, mildly entertaining thriller. It is fast-paced and at times exciting. But the movie itself is so stupid, the character development so piss poor, that it's hard to say Salt isn't a huge disappointment. The movie will make for a passable rental, but that's about it.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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