Cinema review for August 11: Angelina Jolie kicks ass in this breathless thriller

Directed by Philip Noyce. Starring Angelina Jolie, Liev Schreiber, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Daniel Olbrychski, August Diehl, Daniel Pearce, Hunt Block, Andre Braugher, Olek Krupa, Cassidy Hinkle, Corey Stoll. Written by Kurt Wimmer.

Salt is a breathless, expertly-composed thriller with one nagging flaw: it´s absolutely ridiculous. Some good thrillers might unravel in retrospect; with more thought devoted to them, plot holes become apparent and the story falls apart. Salt doesn´t make you wait: the film is driven by a story that starts off silly and implausible and gets more and more preposterous along the way. And yet it works, almost despite itself, especially as a star vehicle for Angelina Jolie, who looks stunning and kicks all sorts of ass.

Director Philip Noyce is no stranger to the genre; his previous credits include the two Harrison Ford Jack Ryan movies, Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger. A decade and a half since seeing either, I can remember little of Tom Clancy´s storylines, but I can precisely recall the SUV ambush scene in Danger: the characters, the vehicles, the buildings, and how they stood in relation to each other. It was a perfectly-composed action scene that served as a template for numerous others.

Well, there´s none of that on display in Salt, as Noyce has dropped comprehension in favor of the Paul Greengrass shaky-cam, hyper-edited style of shooting action. The assault on the eyes makes an immediate impact, but leaves less of a lasting impression; we have little to grasp hold of, and frequently only know that *slam* *bang* something is happening.

But Noyce is a pro, and handles the action almost as well as Greengrass himself: his scenes have quite the impact, though I miss the suspense that might have been derived from a MacGyver-like scene in which Salt builds a makeshift rocket launcher out of an office chair, a table leg, and a fire extinguisher. I guess if I knew exactly what she was doing, it would seem even more ridiculous.

Evelyn Salt (Jolie) is a CIA agent who gets quite the surprise when Russian Vassily Orlov (Daniel Olbrychski) shows up at Headquarters, spins a wildly implausible story about pre-teen Russian spies swapped with American children, and ends with a kicker: one of the spies is named Evelyn Salt, and she´s about to assassinate the Russian president in New York. As her superiors Ted Winter (Liev Schreiber) and Peabody (Chiwetel Ejiofor) buy into the story, Salt takes it on the lam.

Just like Harrison Ford in The Fugitive. Only Salt isn´t out to prove her innocence, she´s just, ahem, running; to what end, we don´t yet know. Is she…? Will she…? Whose side is she on? That´s the drive of Salt, and it works just fine even as each implausible piece of the puzzle comes together, reaching a climax that is so far removed from the realm of possibility we can´t help but chuckle.

Kurt Wimmer´s script was, I think, a tongue-in-cheek, wink-wink affair, equal parts Bond and Bourne and Die Hard. But Noyce´s direction is disarmingly straight-faced. The film works, and it works precisely because it takes itself seriously even when we don´t. It´s the kind of concoction absent from this era of post-modernist filmmaking: oblivious (and immune) to any potential criticism, refreshingly non-self-aware. As opposed to the usual thriller, which gets worse the more you think about it, this one got better, if only because it’s so open about it’s weaknesses.

Jolie is quite wonderful in the title role; not a Lara Croft sex object or a Mrs. Smith cartoon, but a god´s-honest-truth action hero in the Bond/Bourne mold. She throws herself so completely into the role that, while we never lose sight of the fact that we´re watching Angelina Jolie, we´re impressed by the lengths she´s willing to go to, whether being tortured by North Koreans in some brutal opening scenes, or going barefoot through a major action sequence. Fans of the actress should have a blast here, but others may want to steer clear.

One complaint: the film lacks bite. In an attempt to appeal to wider audiences (and receive a PG-13 rating), things have been toned down, and lack the full impact they might have otherwise had.

The supporting cast has little to do, as to be expected here, but Ejiofor is reliable as always. Soap star Hunt Block portrays the US President as the kind of incredibly bland John Kerry type that would have zero chance of being elected.

I liked the film’s promotional material, a close-up of Jolie and the tagline “Who is Salt?”, a reference to the famous line “Who is John Galt?” from Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. Of course, that’s not going to connect with mainstream moviegoers; Salt underperformed at the US box office in the wake of Inception.


Also opening: Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore (showtimes | IMDb), a sequel to the 2001 film that recently tanked at the US box office. Screening only in a Czech-dubbed version in Prague cinemas.

And: Nebe, Peklo (showtimes), a Czech documentary on sexual fetishes from director David Čálek. Screening in Czech.

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