Review may contain spoilers.
With the world’s two biggest secret agent franchises both taking a
hiatus, and Jack Ryan in retirement, could Salt, helmed by Patriot
Games director Philip Noyce, be the next big series? It is certainly set
up for a sequel.
Evelyn Salt (Jolie) is a CIA agent who, after being rescued
from a North Korean prison, has got married and taken a desk job within
“the company”, until the arrival of a supposed Russian defector who outs
her as a Russian sleeper agent with a mission to assassinate the
Russian president, with the intention of not only rekindling the Cold
War but fanning the flames of a full-on nuclear conflict. However, Salt
has her doubts, even though she sets out to fulfil her mission, and
wants to prove her innocence and bring down the Russians who have set
out to destroy her life.
It is fairly basic by-the-numbers spy stuff, although having the Russians as the bad guys again does make a nice change from Middle Eastern terrorists.
The story is given some extra credence by the recent discovery of
Russian spies in the US leading apparently “normal” lives (which wasn’t
an elaborate publicity stunt for the movie). Apart from that recent spy
discovery, US-Russian relations are nowhere near as frosty as they used
to be, and this is portrayed in the movie, which becomes the motivation
for the planned attacks, because the antagonists are old-school,
hardline communists who still have a grudge against capitalist America.
However, the political intrigue is nowhere near the level of Noyce’s
two outings with Jack Ryan, but this is more attributed to writer Kurt Wimmer,
whose work has been a bit hit and miss: his films as writer-director in
particular. His sci-fi actioner Equilibrium had great ideas but, like
many other genre films at the time, it got buried by the avalanche that
was The Matrix. His follow-up movie, Ultraviolet, had the
dubious honour of even making Aeon Flux look good, although his most
recent writing job, Law Abiding Citizen, was a solid action film, and
that’s what, above all, Salt is.
Salt is also very much Jolie’s film and, being more than familiar with the action genre (Mr & Mrs Smith, Wanted, Tomb Raider)
she handles the role convincingly well, although it is a bit of a waste
of her acting talent. Most action movie stars are one-dimensional (as
demonstrated by The Expendables, also out at the same time), but
Jolie can give so much more. Unfortunately, her looks and action
credentials make most people overlook the fact she is a fine actress
capable of nuanced and dramatic performances (The Changeling), and even in action fare, such as Wanted,
she can still produce subtle and credible acting. This movie doesn’t
give her a lot of chance to do that as most of the time she is either
running or fighting in a manner that would make Jason Bourne envious.
Thankfully, on the rare occasions she does have to interact with other
people (that doesn’t involve killing them), she is ably supported by Liev Schreiber as her CIA partner, and Chiwetel Ejiofor as an FBI investigator.
Having a female lead in an action-spy movie is a bit of a novelty (although one that reportedly only came about because Tom Cruise turned
the role down, when it was originally written as a male lead), but that
is its only unique selling point. Jolie’s agent in Mr & Mrs Smith
was more engaging than Salt, again, this is down to the writing more
than anything. The story’s little twists were transparently obvious from
the outset, particularly the final act reveal, although some of this
was due to casting choices, and some of the action needed massive
suspension of disbelief, such as Salt surviving in a near frozen lake
wearing a shirt and trousers. If you can overlook these, and to be fair,
even James Bond goes way beyond the bounds of credulity, this is
a decent action movie that is smarter than the glut of 80s style
team-up movies showing at the moment. Maybe, just as Paul Greengrass brought
Bourne into his own, the franchise needs a different writer and/or
director to give some more depth and character development, should there
be a sequel to what is clearly an origins movie.