Movie review – Salt (2010)


Salt
Directed by Phillip Noyce. Starring Angelina Jolie, Liev Schreiber, and Chiwetel Ejiofor.

This is a fundamentally flawed movie, so concerned with keeping the audience guessing that they never get around to establishing some basis for caring about any of the characters. Okay, that’s not true, they wait until the last 20 minutes to make it more or less unambiguous, but that’s far too late. All the action scenes are so much empty rubbish when I don’t care about the character being chased, or the ones doing the chasing, because I can’t figure out who’s a good guy and who’s a bad guy, and what my allegience emotionally is supposed to be. This is done on purpose, wildly and recklessly so; the movie continues to cloud things with ambiguity and make sure we’re unsure well past the first hour. If I were rooting for someone, then the chases might potentially be exciting, even given that the parkour-super-spy genre is getting a little old at this point. Now there are no more normal spies in movies, they’re all super-spies. They’re all James Bondier than James Bond now. They can do anything and have mastered everything, and they never have to improvise or guess their way out of a situation, they magically have expert knowledge of everything, everywhere. At what point in CIA-and-or-Russian intelligence combat training do they teach you how to shoot a church organ’s basement innards in the right spot to make it play loudly up above? Because Salt seems to have learned this like an old pro.

So, Angelina Jolie plays Evelyn Salt, an American girl who grew up in Russia, was orphaned at a young age, and grew up to be a combat tactics master in the CIA, but who also may or may not be a sleeper agent under deep double secret cover. The first thing we see is a torture scene, of course, since it came from that blighted era of torture pervading the American public conscience and consciousness to such an extent that it seemed every movie had to have one. This is apparently Salt in a North Korean prison, for reasons we are never told, except that they think she’s a spy, which she is. “I’m not a spy,” she cries while being beaten in her underwear and waterboarded. Then the movie says “Present Day” in a caption, and she’s happy at her desk job in Washington DC. She has a husband who’s an arachnologist, but she only married him because her superiors asked her to, because he’s Russian — or does she really love and care for him more than she loves the country she works for, whichever one that is.

A few days ago I watched a cheap B-movie starring Kari Wuhrer as a super space spy, who infiltrates and escapes a prison planet, gets herself aboard a stolen space vessel, and kills every bad guy in her way to prevent the villain from crashing the ship (packed with explosives) into Los Angeles to create mass panic and terror. It is amusing seeing the very good looking Ms. Wuhrer run around in a fetchingly tight combat outfit, laying waste to stuntmen who could easily overpower her if it were a matter of size, strength, and leverage. Halfway through Salt, I realized I was watching basically the same movie, only made with more money and time, but the story was no less silly. I enjoyed the B-movie better because at least I knew who were the good guys and the bad guys at all times.

Like Kari Wuhrer, Angelina Jolie has limitations as a believable combat expert. In fact, I’ve never seen Ms. Jolie seem so poorly cast and obviously weak as an action star, considering how many action movies she’s been in by now. It’s the most obvious when she’s running. Some people look great running, they have a natural athleticism that shines, men and women both. I feel like an idiot in the schoolyard for saying this, but Angelina Jolie looks like she would not have been any good at track events in school, because she runs like a girl. Like a prissy, pampered girl, who didn’t have to be good at athletics because she was good at drama instead. In this movie, she runs like a girl who’s an actress pretending to be someone naturally athletic, but her physical movements betray how unnatural it is, and how hard she’s acting. At another point, when she’s presumably hopping from vehicle roof to vehicle roof at a highway interchange (her stuntwoman has the grace I’m talking about, of course), watching her go “Ahh! Rrr!” and grab hold for dear life at the handhols on top of the semi that no semi actually has on top, I realized she’s basically getting paid millions to do the same sort of play-pretend every boy does all day long in the playground and after school. Ok, now I jump to the other car, ahhh, gotta … hold… on.

Jolie is always praised for being a great actress, but boy, I could really see her acting this time, watch it happening, when she acted athletic and really wasn’t. I don’t remember noticing this before, but once I started seeing it, I couldn’t un-see the pretend about it. Which probably relates to the lack of emotional involvement I had in watching her run and jump around, freeing me to pay attention to other things I was seeing on the screen with an emotional remove.

There’s another weird thing that the movie does, which is that Evelyn Salt starts out the movie looking like Barbie, and ends up looking like Ken. Literally with Ken’s haircut, but also dressed in men’s clothes, the remnants of a disguise she uses to enter the White House. She goes in dressed as a man (a really, really effeminately gay man, by the looks of him), runs after a smoke diversion into a closet to rip off the disguise and costume, and comes out of there looking like a Sardi’s waiter in black pants and a white oxford, with an androgynous unisex haircut. I was kind of hoping that she was going to tear off the man costume and have a sexy form-fitting spy catsuit on underneath, which would have been a great outfit to watch her careen and shoot her way around in for the movie’s climax, which otherwise has nothing new going on. (Except, tiresomely, yet another “surprise” where someone who we thought was on one side is actually double secretly on the other side, too, a reversal I always especially hate, as an audience member, if you’ve actually convinced me to find a character somewhat sympathetic. As sympathy for anybody was in short supply, it was a lousy betrayal by the filmmakers to flip this one on me, since that meant there was no one left to care about even vaguely, as the movie is at its end.)

Fundamentally flawed, though, if they’re going to play this “Ha ha, you don’t know whether to trust Evelyn Salt or not” game, which seems to have been their main attention and focus. I doubt the movie could ever have gotten the kind of box office they wanted (and if you’re going to shell out for Angelina Jolie, you’re hoping for a hit, I presume) while screwing with audiences like that. Personally, I resent it. I go to a movie, I want to know who to root for. Give me someone to root for. Otherwise, who cares? It’s an empty exercise. Basically this movie plays out like a hyper-cut version of a Hitchcock “wrong-man” premise, except that from scene 1 of a Hitchcock movie you are absolutely sure that the main character is innocent and dealing with being thought guilty. Here, no, they don’t want to tell you that.

If you watched this movie and somehow enjoyed it more than I did despite this serious fundamental flaw, then I think your standards have dropped, because movies can be better than this. If you watched it and weren’t quite sure why it wasn’t that great even though it seemed like it was kind of snappily made, well, I think I just told you why.

RATING: C-

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