Thursday, July 22, 2010

Review: "Salt"

"Salt" could've been like a hundred other super-spy movies, except for three things: Angelina Jolie, Phillip Noyce and Kurt Wimmer.

You may have already heard that this thriller originally was supposed to be about a male character, until someone had the idea to cast Jolie in the lead. As an American CIA agent suspected of being a turncoat for the Russians, Jolie exploits the duality of her star persona -- fringe rebel/U.N. goodwill ambassador, man-stealing harpy/loving mother.

Like the shifting tabloid portrayal of Jolie, we never quite know exactly who Evelyn Salt is, but we find ourselves identifying with her and instinctually cheering her on as she wades through elite security forces like a hot knife through butter.

Lacking clear loyalties, her sheer dangerousness becomes her identity.

There's a great scene early on where Salt, on the lam from her American colleagues, quickly changes her appearance. She pulls out a false dental front, removes colored contacts, and dyes her flowing blonde locks obsidian. Then we realize she's not putting on a disguise, but removing one.

Director Noyce is an old hand at cloak-and-dagger material ("Patriot Games," "The Quiet American") and again shows a confident expertise at keeping the audience misdirected. He keeps the plot moving at breakneck speed, and then slows up just enough to reveal that everything you've seen may not be what it seems.

One day a crusty old Russian agent (Daniel Olbrychski) wanders into Rink Petroleum, a front for the CIA, and announces that during the Cold War days, hundreds of children were raised to be deep-cover moles spread throughout the corridors of power in the West.

On a fateful Day X, the best of those double agents will assassinate the Russian president, setting off a nuclear confrontation between the former enemies, now wary allies.

That agent's name: Evelyn Salt.

Salt's longtime partner, Ted Winter (Liev Schreiber), doesn't believe this wild story and wants to give her a chance to defend herself. But Peabody (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the counter-terrorism boss, is a by-the-book man and demands Salt be put in lockdown. While the spooks are distracted by other events, Salt makes good on her escape, demonstrating incredible daring and ingenuity in the process.

At this point, Wimmer's original screenplay -- yes, they really do still exist -- becomes one big game of chase-chase. Except we never know if Salt is running away from the American authorities or toward some other, possibly nefarious goal.

Wimmer plays with the audience's expectations cunningly. We keep hoping Salt will reveal herself as a white knight caught in very bad circumstances. And then she does a really bad thing from which there would appear to be no going back.

As soon as you think you've got the convoluted knot of intrigue puzzled out, another sharp turn sends you deeper into the labyrinth.

Jolie is a convincing action star as she punches, kicks, shoots and otherwise dispatches her entirely male adversaries. In this age of hyper-quick editing of disembodied appendages impersonating hand-to-hand combat, Noyce proves a delightful throwback in actually depicting who did what. It grounds the action in reality, which gives it an authenticity MTV editing never will.

Clever, fast-paced and filled with neck-wrenching twists, "Salt" adds plenty of spice to a tired spy genre.

3.5 stars out of four

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