Salt (2008): Phillip Noyce’s Action Thriller, Starring Angelina Jolie

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Marking director Phillip Noyce’s return to mainstream studio filmmaking, “Salt,” a contemporary action thriller, is an old-fashioned movie in both the positive and negative senses of the term–despite its inadvertent timeliness.

Among other things, “Salt” rating, PG-13, will broaden the commercial appeal of the picture, but not to the level of a blockbuster. Inadvertently, the movie may also benefit from the recent news about the operation of sleeper spies in America’s heartland. (See below).
The best way to describe this hybrid of a picture—spy thriller, mystery actioner, even dramatic love story–is as star vehicle for Angelina Jolie, one of the most versatile actresses working in Hollywood today. Unlike most actresses, Jolie, who’s capable of doing action, drama, and even comedy, carries the uneven tale on her beautiful shoulders. In fact, when she is not on screen, she is very much missed. Too bad that in her actioners (“Wanted,” for example, not to mention the failed franchis “Lara Croft”), she is not given better material to work with–or more skillful direction. 
Thematically, “Salt” belongs to the 1980s and the Reagan administration, when a new kind of Cold War mentality and paranoia was part of the zeitgeist, with a cycle of films to match (“Red Dawn” was one of them, and “Top Gun” in its last, preposterous scene).
Scripted by Kurt Wimmer, “Salt” shows that as a production machine, Hollywood is nothing if not flexible, as the lead role was initially written for a male. Tom Cruise was attached to topline the movie, when it was titled “Edwin A. Salt.” The gender transition from Edwin to Evelyn Salt may please some women and feminist scholars who have been craving for a female action star.  But it also indicates that the part is not particularly well conceived—for a female or male–it’s too vague.
The premise is rather simple. Jolie (in long, blonde, not very appealing wig) plays CIA officer Evelyn Salt, a bright, strong woman who swore an oath to duty, honor and country.  When the tale begins, she is cruelly interrogated by her North Korean captors. Later on, she’s rescued at great risk, but unconvincing scheme by Mike Ktause (August Diehl).  A brief chapter of domestic bliss follows, when the couple, now married, live in Washington D.C.; he works as an arachnologist and she as  undercover operative. 
However, Salt’s loyaltis are soon tested when a Russian defector named Orlov (Daniel Olbrychski) accuses her of being a Russian spy.  In flashback, which is too expository to generate genuine dramatic interest, we get to see images of Orlov’s paranoia about the operation of hidden spies in the U.S., claiming that Salt is one of them.
Drawing on one of Hitchcock’s most prevalent ideas—the wrongly accused man on the run–“Salt” manages a workmanlike story that’s half believable (at best), but at least not as preposterous as could have been the case.
What’s a woman to do? Using all her skills and years of experience as a covert operative to elude capture, Salt must go on the run to prove her innocence when a defector alleges that she’s a mole, triggering Day X, the day when Russian sleeper spies awaken and begin the war against the U.S. (The whole notion of “Day X” is dubious and controversial within and without the CIA; some think it’s absolute nonsense, while others believe it’s plausible, with sleeper agents already activated for certain cases.) 
Initially, Salt’s efforts to prove her innocence only serve to cast further doubts on her motives. The hunt to uncover the truth behind her identity occupies the rest of the film, and it’s testament to the narrative shortcomings that at the end, the question of “Who Is Salt?” is as potent as it was when the movie begins.
As written and directed, Salt’s character is not intriguing enough, lacking complexity and nuance, and, as mentioned, it remains too enigmatic to the very end. In their gender bender scheme, the filmmakers have taken the easy way out by tackling the question of whether a woman, strong and intelligent as she is, would make the same choices as a man. (I would have had the same criticism of the character if a male played it).
With few exceptions (“The Bone Collector,” with Denzel Washington, also directed by Phillip Noyce), one of the recurrent problems of Angelina Jolie’s movies is their lack of a strong counterpart male.  Like Nicole Kidman, Jolie boasts a very strong screen presence, and tends to be a tad too self-contained in her films.
This problem is quite evident here. Liev Schreiber, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Daniel Olbrychski, and Andre Braugher are all good, reliable supporting actors, but their characters are underdeveloped and they are no match for Jolie’s stature on an any level.
As for Noyce, he has never been a particularly precise director in his actioners (“Patriot Games,” “Clear and Present Danger”).  Now, after a long hiatus, during which he made smaller, more personal films (such as “The Quiet American,” with Michael Caine and Brandon Fraser), he’s back on the saddle, but not exactly in top form. By today’s standards, his staging of the chases and action set pieces is conventional, and often workmanslike. 
What elevates the picture above the routine is the charisma of Jolie who, despite all the problems is always commanding to watch (that’s why she is a star).  “Salt,” which will probably be gone and forgotten in a matter of weeks, likely will reaffirm the status of Joilie as one of the most versatile and
high-paid female stars in Hollywood.  Too bad that the picture functions as just a footnote in what’s so far quite an impressive career (See Column on Jolie).
Moving at a brisk pace, “Salt” is mildly entertaining.  In the technical department, the sharp imagery by ace director of cinematography Robert Elswitt stands out.
Timley actioner?
Recently, a group of people, assumed by their friends and neighbors to be ordinary citizens, were arrested by U.S. federal prosecutors and accused of being part of a spy ring, living under false identities in deep cover in an effort to carry out assignments for Russia.
Evelyn Salt – Angelina Jolie
Ted Winter – Liev Schreiber
Peabody – Chiwetel Ejiofor
Orlov – Daniel Olbrychski

Secretary of Defense – Andre Braugher


A Sony Pictures Entertainment release of a Columbia Pictures presentation in association with Relativity Media.
Produced by Lorenzo di Bonaventura, Sunil Perkash.
Executive producers, Ric Kidney, Mark Vahradian, Ryan Kavanaugh.
Directed by Phillip Noyce.
Screenplay, Kurt Wimmer.
Camera, Robert Elswit.
Editors, Stuard Baird, John Gilroy.
Music, James Newton Howard.
Production designer, Scott Chambliss; art director, Teresa Carriker-Thayer; set decorator, Leslie E. Rollins.
Costume designer, Sarah Edwards.
Sound, William Sarokin; supervising sound editors, Philip Stockton, Paul Hsu, Warren Shaw; supervising sound mixers, Jeffrey J. Haboush, Greg P. Russell, Scott Millan; visual effects supervisor, Robert Grasmere; visual effects, Framestore New York, CIS Vancouver, Tikibot VFX, UPP, Hammerhead Prods., Phosphene, Rhino New York; stunt coordinator, Wade Eastwood; associate producers, Paul A. Levin, William M. Connor; assistant director, William M. Connor; second unit director/stunt coordinator, Simon Crane.
Second unit camera, Igor Meglic.
Casting, Avy Kaufman.
MPAA Rating: PG-13.
Running time: 100 Minutes