Originally Posted August 8th, 2010
You can tell a lot about the political climate of The United States based on who the preferred villains in the popular culture are. Regan era nationalism made the 80’s the decade of exceptional American heroes fending off foreign invaders, while the economic downturn and dragging war overseas probably contributed to the domestic cynicism of the mid-to-late Aughts. The new set of bad guys were more complicated, but not altogether more complex; the popular Bourne franchise, which was steeped in suspicion and mistrust of intelligence agencies, put most of the blame on a few bad apples up the chain of the command, rather than on the systems they operated within.
The appearance of a new president and a more optimistic market has left America feeling better about itself, and it's translated into a shift back towards an older antagonist, Soviet-era Russia. The most popular video game in years, Modern Warfare 2, is based on a classic 80’s nightmare scenario of Russia invading the USA. There’s a remake of Red Dawn due for release sometime later this year, as well as a new Jack Ryan movie in the works that’s tentatively titled Moscow. It’s pretty clear that America is done with looking for someone to blame internally, and is once again ready to get back to the “us against the world” mentality of the 80’s and 90’s.
Rekindling the old conflict with America’s favourite enemy is Salt, a distinctly cold war thriller with the trappings of a modern actioneer. Angelina Jolie stars as Evelyn Salt, a CIA covert operative who we first meet being tortured in a North Korean prison. It’s of no real relevance to the plot and feels mostly like a rehash of the opening from Die Another Die, but it serves to remind you that the enemies of the cold war are still assholes. As it turns out, Salt was in North Korea because her cover-marriage was to a “world-renowned” arachnologist who has access to the North-South border. I’ll leave it to you to figure out which is more baffling, the idea of a spider specialist reaching worldwide acclaim or the fact that such a title is enough to let you in and out of North Korea on a whim. Anyway, it’s a few years later and a now desk-bound Salt is accused of being a Soviet sleeper agent with orders to kill the visiting Russian president, as part of an appropriately doomsday-ish plot called Day X. An innocent Salt, fearing for the safety of her husband, goes rogue, and is soon on the run from the CIA.
Or is she? That’s the main question that the movie is trying to impress upon the viewer, as Salt’s motives are never made clear to the audience. Considering she's tying up valuable government resources by going on the lam, your left to think she has a low opinion of her agency's ability to safeguard her husband. What follows is a lot of Salt being chased from set piece to set piece, all the while laying the hurt on anyone who gets in her way. It’s somewhat bizarre that Jolie is being marketed as the main draw here, because as an actress, she has almost nothing to do.
There’s no narration, no internal monologue, just shot after shot of Salt preparing and then executing some unexplained plan. It’s an interesting concept, and it really does make you wonder whether Salt is who she says she is, but this tactic sets up the lead as little more than an ass-kicking cipher. There’s little to the character beyond a commitment to the mission, and personality is replaced by field skills, including the ability to MacGyver a fire extinguisher and an interrogation chemistry set into a homemade RPG. No scientific reason is given as to why such a concoction would create an explosive ordnance, nor is there any time given to think about it, because Salt waits for no one. At about 100 minutes, the film is as lean as they come, with a lack of flab being little compensation for general mediocrity.
If you could call Salt smart about anything, it’s that it knows to distract you with something big and flashy before you can properly comprehend the absurdity of the previous scene. On no less than two occasion does Salt leap five feet up in the air from a standing position in order to dispatch of someone. How is this possible? Who cares, look at what she’s doing now! There are also a handful of gritty fight scenes which are efficient enough to conceal the fact that Jolie is using all 120 pounds of her frame to beat the tar out of trained operatives twice her size. Salt’s only sign of weakness comes from dressing a wound the size of a walnut after using highway transport trucks as an obstacle course.
Such incredible feats of strength are pretty typical of the genre and the film should be given credit for how well it pulls of a female lead in a role originally written for Tom Cruise. Salt’s gender is of zero importance to the people in the film and whatever mediations on gender politics that could crop up are the viewer’s alone. Personally, I found there to be something very fresh about a wife going to the same extreme lengths to save her spouse that other genre films show only men being capable of. There’s a moment where Salt confesses her cover ID to her husband and gives the whole “we won’t be safe” speech. It’s one of the only scenes where Jolie is actually allowed to act, but she delivers it with as much conviction as any other super-spy trying to protect their significant other.
The amount of success that’s derived from Jolie headlining this picture really does put into sharp relief how incredibly boring the picture would have been with a male lead. The supporting cast has little to do here, consisting mostly of Chiwetel Ejiofor functioning as an exposition/expletive machine, while Liev Schreiber as Salt’s partner gets to oscillate between vouching for her innocence and just being a dick to every other intelligence agent.The PG-13 rating becomes increasingly problematic as the body count rises; at one point, Salt unloads an automatic rifle into a downed Russian terrorist at point blank range, with a mild seizure standing in for blood and bullet holes. The action goes for visceral thrills but is frequently too over the top to be wowing, and the plot itself is as ludicrous as it is full of holes (why does 99% of Soviet cold war strategy consist of nuking everything under the sun?). While Jolie does what she can with a limited role, Salt is, at its core, disposable summer entertainment that falls apart as soon as you take five minutes to think about it.
2 out of 5
Directed by Phillip Noyce