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Non-Review Review: Salt

This post is part of James Bond January, being organised by the wonderful Paragraph Films. It’s the final post I’m doing as part of it, looking at last year’s pretender to the “super spy” crown.

I pride myself on my suspension of disbelief. Richard Donner convinced me that a man could fly. My favourite film of 2008 was about a man who dressed as a flying rodent who took on a psychotic clown in downtown Chicago. I recently enjoyed a movie where the inner workings of a computer were represented as neon motorbikes. The film of the year features a crack team of specialists who break into people’s dreams and steal their ideas (or plant new ones). And yet Salt taxes my suspension of disbelief.

Are they arresting her for a Salt?

What, might you ask, does Salt do which leaves me so unable to embrace the mayhem and stuntwork and chase sequences? Does Angelina Jolie wander around the movie with a beaver puppet on her hand? Does she produce an improbably large sword while declaring “by the power of grayskull”? Does she suddenly start shooting laser beams from her eyes? Does she reveal that her character is actually a broom in disguise?

I could tell you, but this would potentially spoil the film. Sufficed to say that Salt is a spy thriller in the zaniest traditions of the genre, with the improbability metre reading off the chart and little understanding of the term “collateral damage”. There’s the insane number of twists during the course of the movie’s narrative which just beggar belief, almost as much as the fact that Angelina Jolie’s character – the eponymous Ms. Salt – seems to consider the laws of physics little more than hastily-composed suggestions scrawled on a post-it stuck to the fridge of life. Salt all but flies through the air as she kicks all kind of ass, not bothering to take names as she blasts away with impunity. At one point, she slides down an elevator shaft using her hands as brakes against a steel girder. If Salt and Chuck Norris ended up in fight, I don’t know who’d win.

My family were able to predict just about every twist in the film after the movie showed its hand early on. At a given juncture, we’d just ask each other, “what would be the most ridiculously impossible thing to happen?” Our answers would almost always turn out to be correct. The more that the idea seemed completely insane, the more likely it was to occur. In the interest of full and frank disclosure, we did incorrectly guess one major plot development at the outset – but that was one of our saner guesses.

A fun shoot...

The plot follows the reveal that CIA agent Evelyn Salt is actually a deep cover Soviet sleeper agent. She claims innocence, but runs anyway – concerned for the safety of her husband. What follows next is a fairly simplistic and easy to predict gambit, as her colleagues attempt to track her down before she can jump-start the third world war by assassinating the Russian President. There are all sorts of shenanigans as Evelyn tries to evade her pursuers and prove her innocence, save her husband, actually be a Russian sleeper agent, have tonnes of flashbacks to how happily married she was, finally catch Inception in the cinema, get up to ambiguous activities.

The stuntwork is actually quite decent and most of the action scenes are well-handled. In fact, there’s one sequence involving a police car and its driver which is pretty damn inventive. However, the movie plays it far too safe. Early on, it attempts to force the audience to question what it’s doing. How morally ambiguous is Salt? Is she a good guy? Is she a bad guy? Is she innocent? Is she guilty? It does this by attempting to convince us that absolutely everything is up for grabs. The problem is that it isn’t. See, we know as an audience that a few low-level extras can be shot and killed without batting an eyelid, but there are some sacred cows that a major blockbuster wouldn’t dare to harm. I won’t say more for fear of spoiling the film, but it isn’t too hard to call the film’s bluff.

Hangin' on in there...

Salt is trying to be a spy blockbuster for the 24 generation. Salt is basically Jack Bauer were he Angelina Jolie. Except that Jolie doesn’t understand her character half as well as Kiefer Sutherland understands his veteran agent, and the movie is infinitely weaker on characterisation. 24 pulled all sorts of crazy stunts in its time, breaking countless laws of nature in doing so, but it was at its best when it wrangled character through those moments. Even if he was doing something morally reprehensible, you understood Jack’s reason for it – and Jack didn’t need to run around killing police officers in order to seem ambiguous.

The cast is far better than the film. Obviously while filming X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Liev Schreiber discovered that he liked money. Good for him – he’s a talented actor who has worked long and hard, and he’s earned an easy paycheck or two. The same applies for Chiwetel Ejiofor. However, even they can’t save this film. Ejiofor even disappears for a large section in the middle – on can only imagine the actor went out for air and had to be dragged back to the set. I’ve never been convinced of Angelina Jolie as an actress. She’s a movie star, to be sure, but she never really convinced me as an actress in her own right. Maybe it’s the script, but Jolie never seems to be trying particularly hard – and if she isn’t digging the film, why should I?

Salt is just a mess. It’s a cliché-fest, with a whole host of highly improbable twists and turns, but with nothing to really care about or invest in. It is just too ridiculous to engage with.

4 Responses

  1. I agree. I thought the movie was terrible. My husband and I even thought about not finishing it half way through but did anyway because we are gluttons for punishment.

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