So, after writing movie reviews here the past several years, I have come to discover there’s only one real downside to the enterprise. Every so often, I happen to catch a movie that’s so by-the-numbers and pedestrian that it sorta stops GitM dead. I mean, an unmitigated stinker like Southland Tales or Gods and Generals can be as easy to write about as a good film. And even an annoyingly botched flick like Alice in Wonderland can compel a few paragraphs of copy, out of sheer annoyance if nothing else.
But then you get a bland, summer-movie-for-summer-movie’s-sake like Phillip Noyce’s ludicrous espionage thriller Salt, and the site grinds to a halt. Salt isn’t out-and-out terrible or anything. It’s just so perfunctory, so lazy and lackluster in its storytelling, that even commenting on it one way or the other seems like more than the movie deserves. (FWIW, this is the second half of the Kids are All Right double-header I mentioned a week ago.) Probably the most interesting thing I can say about Salt, other than that its Anna Chapman meets Terror Babies, Cold War-hangover plotting could be ripped from the headlines of right-wing nightmare, is that it somehow manages to be both predictable and preposterous at the same time. [Major spoilers to follow, but if you haven’t seen it by now…don’t.]
Predictable, because Salt is so clearly the type of movie that wants to blow your mind that a second-act “twist” — think No Way Out — is well nigh inevitable. (But even when it happens, the filmmakers don’t have the guts to follow through: Angelina Jolie’s character can’t just be undercover. She’s deep, deep undercover.) And predictable because, sorta like Peter Sarsgaard skulking around in Knight & Day a few weeks ago, anybody who’s vaguely into movies will know Liev Schrieber isn’t taking the role of Government Functionary #2 unless there’s some scenery to chew into at some point. (It may not be his fault, but Schrieber has become William Hurtish to the extreme to me — just a hambone waiting to happen.)
And yet, Salt is preposterous. Because, even though you kinda see the big turns coming in all their ridiculous glory, Salt still does not make a lick of sense. As the trailers indicate, Evelyn Salt (Jolie) is a CIA agent who is forced to go on the run from her bosses (Schrieber and a wasted Chiwetel Ejiofor) after a KGB defector (Daniel Olbrychski) outs her as a Russian spy. This mostly involves a lot of running and hiding and hair-dye and whatnot. (Shoplifting too. Here’s your drinking game to make Salt palatable whenever it hits cable — Drink every time Jolie ganks something.)
And, as I’ve already alluded, at a certain point in the middle going, Agent Salt [Spoiler Spoiler Spoiler] switches teams. (You can figure this out even if you’re a touch slow, or you’re watching on a plane without sound or something, because Jolie starts vamping it up like Natasha from the Rocky & Bullwinkle cartoons, and even starts wearing a Russian hat as a signifier.) So, ok, edgy second-act twist, I guess…except the whole getting-outed-by-the-KGB-guy plot at the very beginning now doesn’t make any sense at all. (You could argue he was “activating” her — but he could’ve done that with a phone call.) Multiply this sort of nonsense by three acts, and you end up with a mild fiasco by the final reel.
But that makes Salt sound more howlingly terrible than it in fact is. Phillip Noyce has made some very good movies in his day (The Quiet American, Rabbit-Proof Fence), and he’s nothing if not competent. But his action sequences are just that: competent, middling, and kind of a bore. In terms of actioners, Noyce previously made the two Harrison Ford Jack Ryan movies, Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger, and it’s probably not a positive sign for the shenanigans here that in neither film is the most memorable scene an action sequence. (In Games, it’s Ryan watching the video-gamey US counter-strike on the bad guy’s base from the Pentagon. In Danger, it’s Ryan playing cat-and-mouse on the PC with the bureaucratic bad guy next door.)
Here’s, there’s some passable stunt work, to be sure. But Salt is one of those action movies where the geography and physics seem completely random. (And I don’t just mean the rail-thin Jolie knocking out gimongous cops and robbers cold with one roundhouse punch — They mostly get around that with karate chops and such.) Salt is in downtown DC, then a highway overpass, then a full-on highway, then back in DC. She’s ten feet above the bad guys on an elevator…no, she’s five minutes behind them, in some random hallway we didn’t see before…no, I’m sorry, she’s right behind them again, because the big door is closing and she just makes it through. One gets no sense of danger or of propulsion when Jolie just seems to be teleporting around to accommodate the needs of the script.
As for Jolie herself, well she’s a movie star, and better than the film probably deserves. But, when you get to thinking on it, that’s pretty much always Jolie’s m.o., isn’t it? From Alexander to Mr. & Mrs. Smith to the Tomb Raiders to The Bone Collector (also a Noyce picture) to Wanted, Jolie tends to be the most impressive thing about otherwise terrible films. It’s a neat trick, sure, but at a certain point, you would think it’d be time to exercise a little more quality control, right?
Salt isn’t the worst film of Angelina Jolie’s career or anything, nor is it the worst film of the summer, but it is a lowest-common-denominator, assembly-line entertainment that ends up being both drab and absurd. My advice is save your money, comrades. We may have a hard winter ahead of us yet.