Salt, But No Pepper?

Erik Hayden at The Atlantic with a round-up.

Christopher Orr at The Atlantic:

I was planning to let this one pass. Honestly. What purpose would be served, I asked myself, by cataloguing the manifold deficiencies of the Angelina Jolie spy thriller Salt, a second-tier summer offering unlikely to inspire much critical or commercial enthusiasm anyway?

But as I was coming to this conclusion, the film itself shamed me back into an appreciation of my duty. It happened near the end, when the heroine committed a homicide that was not strictly speaking necessary, and another character asked her, “Why did you kill him?” She replied firmly: “Because somebody had to.”

Somebody has to. If government assassins and reviewers of mediocre summer cinema have anything in common (and, in fact, we have quite a bit), it is an appreciation of this Spartan credo.

In this instance it’s best, I think, to be quick and businesslike, avoiding emotional involvement and the unnecessary infliction of pain. So here goes. Salt is a dull, dumb, humorless film. I’ve written before about Hollywood’s failure to produce B+ (and even B-) genre films, and Salt is a prime example—a movie that ought to have been a competent if uninspired entertainment but instead approximates Bourne for Dummies.

Dana Stevens at Slate:

Though Salt will appeal to Bourne fans, it’s slicker and less gritty than those films. Also, Evelyn Salt is more inscrutable and less vulnerable than Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne; every time we think she’s revealed a truth about herself, it’s eventually exposed as a bluff. Had a man played the lead role, which was originally written for Tom Cruise, Salt would have come off as dated and predictable. With a woman—with this woman—all the invincible-spy clichés feel fresh and fun again. Jolie gets to doctor her own wounds in a bar bathroom, scale the side of a building, leap down an elevator shaft, and—most impressively—pull off at least three successful makeovers by giving herself chic haircuts and stealing fab wardrobes on the fly.

As she did in the graphic-novel adaptation Wanted, Jolie makes for a natural action hero. Her physical confidence and self-possession are absolute, and even if she’s not doing all of her own stunts, she makes you believe she could. She’s having great fun, but it’s not smug, jokey James Bond fun. Though the story is ridiculous, she plays her character straight, and though the inconclusive last sequence is a shameless setup for a sequel, you give it a pass because, truth be told, you’re not quite ready to be done with the icy, invincible Evelyn Salt.

The audience’s relationship to Jolie as an off-screen superhero—a bona-fide, old-school movie star—makes her ludicrously competent character seem contiguous with her real-life persona. After leaping from overpasses down onto the roofs of semis and single-handedly dispatching a White House bunker full of armed guards, it seems perfectly logical that Salt—if that really is her name—might stop off at the U.N., make a speech about world hunger, then head home to nurse the twins and have sex with Brad Pitt.

Kurt Loder at MTV:

The story does kick off with a clever hook. Top CIA agent Evelyn Salt (Angelina Jolie) is in the middle of grilling a Russian intelligence operator named Orlov (Daniel Olbrychski) when he tells her that the Agency has been infiltrated by a Russian mole, whose ambitious mission it is to destroy the United States. Salt asks Orlov the mole’s name. “Salt,” he says.

Two of Salt’s fellow agents have been watching this interrogation, and they’re naturally startled. One of them, Ted Winter (Liev Schreiber), says he’s certain that Evelyn can’t be a mole. The other, however, a hardass named Peabody (Chiwetel Ejiofor), isn’t so sure. Salt herself doesn’t stick around to explain — she takes off. All kinds of pursuers leap into action, and as the chase proceeds, we marvel at her ability to dispatch hordes of heavily armed soldiers (all terrible shots) and her easy access to guns, chemicals and high-end designer clothing. (At one point in her flight, attired in a flowing fur-trimmed cape and matching hat, she looks like a fugitive from a fashion shoot.) She has also brought along a venomous pet spider. Well, her husband’s pet spider. Her husband’s name is Mike (August Diehl), and he’s an arachnologist so esteemed, we’re told, that he has “unlimited access to the border areas of North Korea.” This would explain why he was on hand when Salt was freed from the North Korean prison where we’d seen her being beaten to a pulp in her underwear at the beginning of the movie. Unfortunately, it doesn’t explain what the Norks have to do with the story, which seems to be nothing.

When it’s not swamped in uproar — one damn thing after another — the movie attempts to maintain its focus on the Russian mole. Or moles, actually — because there’s a whole nest of them, raised from childhood to become deep-cover saboteurs. (We see the devious nippers being schooled in the nuances of colloquial English by watching old “Brady Bunch” episodes!) At first we don’t think Salt is one of these spies, but then it begins to seem that maybe she is. Anyone hoping for a resolution to this question should be aware that the movie is openly intended to be the first installment of a franchise. Stay tuned, presumably.

Stephanie Zacharek at Movieline:

Jolie is great fun to watch — for style and grace, she’s the closest we’ve got to a modern-day Errol Flynn or Burt Lancaster — and Noyce makes sure she looks her best. The action in Salt is shot and edited so cleanly that it makes the movie feel like a miracle of modern-day action filmmaking. There’s no choppy, rapid-fire cutting. Instead, Noyce and his editors, Stuart Baird and John Gilroy, connect the visuals into thrilling but logical mosaics — we always know who’s coming from where, and more often than not, that who is Jolie, running, jumping or sprinting into action.

Noyce has made his share of action thrillers (he’s the director behind the Tom Clancy adaptations Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger), but he’s pulled off more serious, emotionally complex material too (like his meticulous and thoughtful version of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American). Salt is, of course, closer in style to the former than the latter; still, Noyce approaches the material with a healthy sense of humor. The subject matter alone is likely to give moviegoers of a certain age a pleasant shiver of Cold War nostalgia, and Noyce runs with that. (The Cold War wasn’t so much fun while it was going on, but as much as we feared that the Soviets might someday come over and liquefy our buildings, they never actually did so.) Touches like Orlov’s dumpling-thick Russian accent, or the way Salt wraps herself in a swishy fur-trimmed cape, topped off with a Dr. Zhivago toque, are served up with a sly wink.

And yet Noyce takes Jolie and all her capabilities seriously. We’re meant to enjoy her kung-fu kicks and rock ‘em-sock ‘em punches. But her face is the real secret weapon here, and Noyce never loses sight of that. The plot twists of Salt unfold with delicious silliness, but Noyce gives his star a moment of great emotional gravity — we’re allowed to witness a horrific event, but how we might feel about it is inconsequential. Noyce trains the camera on Jolie’s face, and across a span of mere seconds, we see a color-wheel of emotions — horror, suppressed pain, anger and resolve — drift across it.

Shannon Hood at Flickcast:

Angelina Jolie does a very good job in the role, but her body is so frail looking that you fear she will snap in two.  She has no muscle, and no brawn, so no matter how good her performance is, I can’t buy her as an ass-kickin’ chick.  I’m pretty sure I could knock her over with my pinky. I understand why she was cast, but a Jennifer Garner or Alice Braga type with a little muscle would have been more convincing.

Liev Schreiber plays one of Evelyn’s CIA handlers and Chiwetel Ejiofor plays a counter-intelligence expert. Everyone else sort of fades into the background next to Jolie.

Salt is equal parts The Fugitive and the Bourne movies. It is perfectly serviceable as a summer popcorn movie, no more, no less.


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