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Review: Salt

Despite an overlay of geopolitics, the movie is as loud and empty as James Newton Howard

  | March 07, 2014 09:48 IST
Review: Salt
  • Cast:
    Angelina Jolie, Liev Schreiber, Chiwetel Ejiofor , Daniel Olbrychski, Andre Braugher
  • Director:
    Phillip Noyce
  • Writer:
    Kurt Wimmer
Pics:Spies like her?

?Who is Salt?? is the question posed, for the past month or so, on the side of just about every bus in the land. To the extent that Salt is a mystery, the question is apt enough. Is she ? played at high velocity and with steely ferocity by Angelina Jolie ? a Russian mole, a CIA superassassin or a little of both? But to the much greater extent that Salt, directed by Phillip Noyce from a screenplay by Kurt Wimmer, is an action movie, the more salient question might be: What does Salt do?

You name it. On the run from suspicious colleagues in the C.I.A. after she has been slandered or had her deep cover blown by a Russian defector (Daniel Olbrychski), Salt sheds her shoes and then her underwear (so as to blind a security camera and spike the blood pressure of at least half the audience) and proceeds to assemble a rocket launcher out of office furniture and cleaning supplies. That?s just an overture, really, to a symphony of hurtling, fairly ingenious fights and escapes.

Salt leaps from the roofs of moving trucks on her way out of Washington and then ? once in New York ? enacts vengeance, pre-emptive mayhem and self-defensive killing using spider venom, plastic explosives and stolen clothes.

It all happens in such a frenzy of momentum and on-the-fly exposition that some of the more preposterous elements in the story will strike you only in retrospect, after the helicopter leaps, the elevator-shaft daredevilry and the race-the-clock flirtation with thermonuclear war.

But that it as it should be. Wimmer has constructed a puzzle just complicated enough to keep you alert while Noyce, a protean Australian craftsman whose other credits include Patriot Gamesand Rabbit-Proof Fence, throws the pieces in the air and watches them collide, explode and crash to the ground.

Evelyn Salt ? a name usually reduced, because everyone is in such a hurry, to its first or final syllable ? is seen, before the opening titles, being tortured in a North Korean prison, from which she is sprung by a co-worker (Liev Schreiber) and the German arachnologist (August Diehl) who will become her husband.

Two years later, on their wedding anniversary, Salt leaves the apartment they share with a cute dog and some poisonous spiders, and makes her way to the corporate offices that serve as a front for her CIA job.

There she meets the Russian defector, who insists that Salt is really named Chernkov, that her father was a wrestler and her mother a chess prodigy, and that Salt was taken away by the KGB to be trained from infancy as an undercover agent.

She and her classmates were schooled in ?idioms, idiosyncrasy and ideology? (a much better slogan than ?Who is Salt,? by the way, though perhaps for a different movie) so they could infiltrate American society. Now, two decades after the end of the cold war, they are being activated to cause some big global trouble.

Does Salt travel to New York to foment this trouble or to head it off? Since Jolie is someone you are inclined to root for, and since she throws out a few damsel-in-distress bids for empathy amid all the smackdowns and chases, it?s hard not to think of her as one of the good guys.

But a lot of circumstantial evidence, like flashbacks to her childhood at the Soviet super spy Hogwarts, suggests otherwise. The movie does what it can to scramble the moral signals, but the plot twists are telegraphed even as they are camouflaged, by the casting, as well as by the writing.

Schreiber and Chiwetel Ejiofor, squabbling as two CIA officers chasing Salt, are skilled at suggesting potential ambiguities about their characters without distracting attention from the star.

Which is scarcely possible, in any case. Perhaps the most ridiculous scene in Salt has Jolie walking away unnoticed from the aftermath of a multi-vehicle smashup. I suspect this was meant as a joke, since her magnetism is the film?s foundation and reason for being (even though her role was originally conceived as a vehicle for Tom Cruise). She is the prime special effect, and a reminder that even in an era of technological overkill, movie stars matter.

Not that Salt matters much. Despite an overlay of geopolitics, the movie is as loud and empty as James Newton Howard?s score, which I don?t mean entirely in a bad way.
The music does what it needs to do to amplify and inflect the action, while also paying subtle sonic homage to the brassy Bond-style soundtracks of the past. And the film itself moves with speed and efficiency.

Jolie?s contribution is to endow the silliness with a gravity and clarity of purpose that makes you care, for a scant hour and a half, who Salt is, what she does and where she stands. Not that she stands for much, or stays still for very long.
Salt is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). Fisticuffs and gunplay, accompanied by swearing.
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