Angelina Jolie gives great femme fatale—she knows when to coolly work those stern, alien features and when to cut loose with the ferocious hellcat routine. In Salt, Our Lady of Destruction punches, kicks, crashes and cuts a wide swath of mayhem—but she also makes this silly “serious” spy romp a bit of fun.
The vast majority of big-star, stunts-and-effects blockbusters fall into a yawning gulf of mediocrity; of bland, kinda diverting, sorta watchable, mildly entertaining “eh, okay.” After all, they can’t all be Inception (or Inglorious Basterds)—a lot of them are Prince of Persia. Or Knight and Day. Or The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Giant films with plenty of the flash and dazzle and the loud and pretty and maybe even a few actors doing their charismatic best amidst the chaos. But in the end they leave you feeling you’ve just been rolled down a hill in a barrel of cats and firecrackers—cats with really straight, white teeth.
Salt could have been another of those hollow monstrosities—it’s full of stunts and car crashes and the Big Twists now mandatory in every mainstream action film or thriller. A wildly implausible spy romp, it exists for no other reason than to make a lot of noise… and money. But Salt has a secret weapon: Angelina Jolie.
Jolie comes at these kinds of fantasy roles with more than just straight, white teeth—she also has those lips, those cheekbones, those eyes, that razor-blade cracked-whip confidence. And it doesn’t hurt she can also act. Even when she’s kicking it (literally) in summer fuzz, Jolie has that predatory wink in her eye that says, “I know it’s light-weight fluff, but I still fully intend to stomp 100% of your butt.”
Hollywood could always use improvement when it comes to decent roles for women (later today, as part of Chicks Who Rock week, I’ll be looking at four new indie films that happen to feature strong female characters), but let’s stop for a moment and think about how far we’ve come that an Angelina Jolie can exist and can play so hard, so fearlessly—and yes, so glamorously—with the Big Boys in box-office friendly comic-book larks like Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Wanted, and now Salt (a role intended for Tom Cruise, but re-gendered for Jolie). I’m no Jolie super-fan, but there’s no denying she’s changed the game for females in action films (all while still doing nuanced work in serious dramas like A Mighty Heart and Changeling).
As for Salt, it’s a fairly run-of-the-mill super-spy flick—not so much the gritty realism of the Bourne films as the physics-ignoring swagger of the Mission: Impossible or Bond movies. (A character even sports the latest in Rosa Krebs footwear.) It seems the Russians are coming… again: The Cold War’s heating back up with a plot to destroy America by way of a series of assassinations by deep-cover sleeper agents. (If I didn’t know better, I’d swear Sony set up the recent bust of the Virginia-based Russian spy ring as a brilliant PR stunt for Salt.)
Nobody Does it Better
But spin-kicking it above “watchable” and into actual “fun” is Jolie as CIA officer Evelyn Salt, who may be a double agent. Or a triple agent. Or just a regular gal who wants to settle down into a nice married life with her German arachnologist husband. Whatever the case, Salt is forced to open multiple cans of whoop ass when she’s identified as a Russian mole by a defecting KGB bad guy.
So our heroine hits the road (and any cars or security guards on it) to prove her innocence. Along the way she seems to let herself periodically get caught by various factions just so she can engineer yet another high-octane escape. That also means McGuyvering some homemade weapons (her CIA training clearly included the James T. Kirk seminar on how to use found items to hand rig a Gorn-stopping cannon), and sporting various disguises. (Jolie works the Dr. Zhivago Russian-fur look like she was born on the Volga. Though as much as Salt changes her hair, there’s no hiding that narrow, sharply drawn face—if she really wants to alter her looks she should eat a cheeseburger.)
It’s also not a bad idea to have a couple back-up secret weapons, and Salt benefits from the involvement of Liev Schreiber and Chiwetel Ejiofor as the CIA and National Security bosses hot on Salt’s trail. I wouldn’t be opposed to have both actors in every film. Schreiber has his I’m-tougher-than-I-look suits, that icy warm smile and those sneaky eyes; and Ejiofor matches him in the more-than-meets-the-eye category, his broad, thoughtful face never leaving you sure whose side he’s really on.
As directed by journeyman Phillip Noyce (The Harrison Ford Jack Ryan movies, The Quiet American, The Bone Collector with Jolie), Salt never slows down—it’s full of running and yelling and lots of jumping and hanging from the edge of things. But thanks to Ms. Jolie, all the boom-boom-pow that overloads and unbalances so many other summer action flicks doesn’t topple this one. Even as it descends from the implausible to the ridiculous, in Angelina’s neck-snapping hands Salt remains just-give-up-and-go-with-it enjoyable.