Friday, July 23, 2010

Too Salty

As I type this I've just come home from a midnight release showing of Salt, the new movie by Welsh director Phillip Noyce starring Angelina Jolie as a C.I.A. operative accused of being a Russian spy, with my good friend The Opinioness. Midnight releases are something of a risk. If the movie is good, it's money and time well spent. If the movie tanks, or is mediocre (thus failing to even bomb spectacularly), you've just wasted two hours of your life and too much money to see a movie that would barely be worth rental fees, especially if you have to be up early for work the next day. For all the attention Salt has received in recent months (including a Jolie cover on the current Vanity Fair) and a story involving espionage and outrageous stunt sequences, it was destined to become part of the former category, but still, this is the midnight release, and there's always risk involved.

The character of Evelyn Salt is definitely one that gets a lot of attention, as the natural question on viewer's minds naturally trends to whether or not she is in fact a Russian spy. But the original creation of the character bears much interest, as the original script didn't have Salt as a woman at all. In fact, the character was originally written with Tom Cruise in mind to play the suspected traitor, but Cruise declined, citing among other reasons that the character was too close in proximity to his Mission Impossible character Ethan Hunt. Jolie, who had shown interest in being part of a female espionage franchise, was shown the script (presumably with the necessary parts moved) and liked it enough to sign onto the project. It was possibly the best casting job the studios could have pulled off, as Jolie is one of the hardest workers in the industry, whether it be nailing down her part to perfection or getting in shape to pull off her own stunts. Jolie is just that good, and easily the best part of Salt.

If only the rest of the movie had come anywhere close to that level of quality exuded by Jolie. The story actually starts out well, with Salt being accused by a Russian defector (Daniel Olbrychski) of being a Russian agent, trained as a child to infiltrate the United States government to carry out a mission to end America's dominance as part of an ancient Soviet Cold War plot. Salt, in attempting to prove her innocence, escapes the clutches of her employers at the C.I.A. who want her to remain in custody until things can be sorted out. With agents Winter (Liev Schreiber) and Peabody (Chiwetel Ejiofor) hot on her trail, the chase sequence that ensues is quite amazing to take in, from Salt's escape from her headquarters building to shimmying window ledges of an apartment complex to leaping across the roofs of tractor trailers on the highway. It's mostly unbelievable how some things are pulled off, but only lending credence to the idea that she's one of the best. The only question is whether she's the best of us or them.

It's about this point about a third of the way through the film that it all begins to lose steam. Already we had been subjected to poor flashback sequences of the Russian child sleeper program, as well as a young romance between Salt and her soon-to-be husband (August Diehl, best known from his fantastic small role in Inglourious Basterds). The sequences, not only stupid, tell us far too much about the backstory that doesn't need to be known to truly enjoy the main plot. And the plot itself has it's moments, mostly in moments of true shocks and twists (many of which even the most astute of viewers may not see coming), but the actual plan the Soviets have to wreak havoc isn't concise or clever, merely convoluted and haphazard. And really, Soviets? Were they chosen as the villains because they don't exist anymore and the moviemakers didn't want to risk offending any of the nations or cultures that might be MORE likely to commit atrocities on American soil? Even better, how did you manage to create an action movie in which I was BORED during the ACTION sequences? For every moment I was truly shocked there were twenty minutes or more which was dull, dull, dull.

I've mentioned how good Jolie's performance was (I don't get the hate people carry for her, Angelina Jolie is one of the best workers in Hollywood) and it's unfortunate that the rest of the acting didn't live up to the top billing. Scheriber I thought was dull and dry as Jolie's friend and C.I.A. partner, but he gets a chance to redeem his performance in the second half of the film. Ejiofor, however, was the real disappointment. I've lauded Ejiofor in the past for his great performances in Serenity and 2012 but here he does little with what's given him. Don't get me wrong, what's given him IS horrible, but it would have been nice for him to infuse his bad dialogue with a little personality as Jolie and Schreiber were able to do. Olbrychski is mediocre, a typical Russian agent, and we don't get to see much of Diehl, but the chemistry between him and Salt is believable as husband and wife.

What Salt does well is make us question who's playing who, and to what end. What are we supposed to think when Salt apparently kills the Russian president when that's what we've been told is the mission of the Russian spy? The exact opposite of what we should be, but that's the best part of the storytelling. But the action is a mishmash of bad camera work and lack of balance, with one particular scene near the end lacking anything in the way of grace or poetry in motion. With a weak second half, atrocious dialogue, plotholes you could pass a 747 through, too many dull moments and a plot that reeks of leftovers from other, better spy movies (Mission Impossible, the new James Bond, the Bourne series), it's a shame that this film ended up in Jolie's lap. Jolie has made a career out of portraying strong female characters and really wanted to get a female-fronted espionage franchise off the ground. It's an inspiring goal, but Salt may end that momentum before it even gets going. I can't with any sense of decency recommend seeing this film, either in the theaters or in what I'm sure will be a quick transferal to DVD. There are mindless, fun, popcorn action films (like this summer's A-Team) that are far less believable, but since they're not trying to do anything revolutionary they can get away with the silly. Salt tried to go the intellectual route, and it burns the film and the moviegoing audience badly. Skip it.


SquishyAbs said...

Great review!

Opinioness of the World said...

Yeah I didn't hate it as much as you did. But I completely agree about the shoddy camera work and wretched dialogue. And Angelina Jolie is hands down the best thing about the film (love her!!).

Regarding the change from a male lead to a female (and who told you that one???), Jolie actually received the script BEFORE they made the gender changes, which included removing the fact that she had a child and making her fight scenes tougher and "dirtier" (that's how the stunt coordinator worded it). The scene where she uses a sanitary napkin from the ladies' room in the bar is fave blogger said that they must have added that once they made the gender switch.

The second half of the film is atrocious compared to the first half but for me, it was still worth it to see Jolie kick ass. I still have my fingers crossed that the studio execs will green-light better female-fronted films.

Gianni said...

I really wanted to like this movie, but it had it's good parts, as I said. The story, though it could have been better, was interesting and shock-inducing, but just too convoluted and unbelievable to take seriously. The stuff that made the Bourne and new Bond films so breathtaking was their ability to convincingly be in the "Real World" as to be believable. I just didn't feel that way here, completely disconnected from the material and bored for stretches at a time. It's too bad for Jolie, but we'll see if Salt's solid 2'nd place box office opening maintains or if Salt drops precariously in the coming weeks.

Sorry, new post's late. I'll have a new review up tomorrow evening after work, with another lined up by the end of the week.