Thursday, July 29, 2010

Extra Salty: A Review of SALT ...!

What up, guys? It's been an absolutely insane week or so, and it's only going to get more so from here. I was in San Diego Thursday through Sunday for Comic-Con, and as always, it was an awesome yet exhausting experience. It was an absolute blast though, and I can't wait to really sit down and give my thoughts and impressions about what rocked the hardest at this year's show. I am hoping to write up my Comic-Con experience this weekend at the latest, so definitely stay tuned for that. And, despite the fact that I am more than ready to kick back and relax and sleep off my Comic-Con hangover, tonight I am going to rock and/or roll, baby. I am seeing AEROSMITH, live, in concert, at the Verizon Wireless Ampitheater in Irvine - with opener Cheap Trick! I can't wait for the big show, and I'll be writing about that asap as well. But in the meantime, I do have a new movie to write up, that being the latest actioner from Angelina Jolie ... So, without further ado ...

SALT Review:

- I think it's safe to say that Angelina Jolie is the current queen of the female action movie heroes. She's an actress whose performances I usually enjoy, but, I'll admit ... more often than not I'm a lot less interested in Angelina when she's doing serious drama. I don't want to see Angelina in period pieces or weepy literary adaptations. I want to see her kicking ass and taking names. I want to see her as a human comic book character. I want to see her get down n' dirty. I want to see her glowering at some pitiful fool who's at the wrong end of her smoking gun. This is when Ms. Jolie is at her best and most likable, and in that respect, Salt is Angelina's return to what she does best - being a lady you most definitely do NOT want to mess with. What's interesting about Salt though is that it's not an ultra-stylized action-fest like, say, Wanted. It's not a videogame or comic book adaptation. Instead, it's something of an old-school throwback to the big-chase thrillers of the 80's and 90's - a straight-up actionfest filled with bone-crunching stunt work and powered on pure adrenaline.

In that regard, it's no surprise that Salt's director, Philip Noyce, is the same guy who did movies like Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger back in the day. Salt feels like one of those old-school Harrison Ford espionage movies. Fairly straightforward in many respects, but packed with lots of twists and turns to keep you guessing. It's refreshing, in a lot of ways. The stunts in the movie feel big and over-the-top but also very visceral and real, and the whole movie is basically a perpetual chase scene. Even the plot is a throwback of sorts, as it finds a somewhat clever way to reinstate the Soviet Union as the big, bad, world-threatening menace of the Cold War era.

The movie moves so quickly, at such a nonstop, rapid-fire pace, that it's easy not to think too hard about the film's increasingly ridiculous plotline. In fact, I have to admit that the plot is so absurd (though the movie plays it straight), that it comes back around to just being goofily entertaining. The twists and backstabs keep piling on, and the movie, almost from the get-go, becomes a giant guessing game of "who's side is everyone on?"

In fact, the mytery of Evelyn Salt and her true alliegances are the driving question of the film, and we aren't quite sure where she stands for most of the movie. This means that Angelina Jolie is given a pretty difficult task - she has to keep us invested in Salt even as we're questioning her. Is she good or evil? Russian or American? Loyal to the US government or a double agent? The important thing is that regardless of what else is true, we know that Salt is one uber-capable badass that is basically a female Jack Bauer in terms of sheer intensity, drive, and singularity of purpose. Salt will take out a room full of thugs with ease, plot a perfectly-executed covert assassination, and choke out a dude while handcuffed and suspended from a guardrail. Jolie rocks in this role - she brings a wild, feral intensity to the part and gives you no qualms about believing that she's a one-woman army.

The other main standout in the cast is Liev Schreiber as Jolie's CIA boss, Ted Winter. Schreiber is a steady presence throughout the film, and is extremely solid as always. I don't know if I'd go as far as a recent EW article did - in which Schreiber was called the greatest actor of his generation - but the guy knows how to be likable while also being quietly badass, and he can also chew scenery with the best of 'em when called upon. In this film, watching the cat and mouse game between Jolie and Schreiber unfold and unravel is one of the main selling points.

So what's Salt about? Honestly, saying almost anything beyond the basics would be giving too much away, as the film slowly doles out information key to solving its central mysteries as it goes. But the basic premise is this: On the eve of her wedding anniversery, top CIA agent Evelyn Salt is brought in to interrogate a Russian heavy who's recently turned himself into the government, claiming to have evidence that would expose former Soviet spies still embedded in the US, including within the highest ranks of the US government. During the interrogation, the Russian accuses Salt of being one of those spies. Soon, Salt is on the run, but we're not yet sure why. Is she a Russian spy? Is she being set up? All is revealed, eventually. But the fun is in the many fake-outs and misdirections along the way. It's a fun ride, no question.

I do think, however, that Salt could have used a little more meat to it. Some of the backstory we get about Salt is pretty intriguing, but it only comes in ultra-brief flashes. There are some interesting ideas at the heart of the film's plot, but they're never explored in much depth, and we never get quite as deep into Salt's character as we probably should have. It might also have been nice to get a couple more supporting characters worth caring about - as is, most are just there to serve the needs of the plot and aren't given a whole lot to do. The script could also have used a bit more polish overall. The twists are a lot of fun, but some of the contrivances of the plot really don't stand up to much scrutiny, and some of the characters are forced to act a lot dumber than they should in order to keep the plot moving. The ending of the film in particular just seems to run out of steam - after some spectacular action scenes and some jaw-dropping reveals, it feels like things just sort of deflate, leaving us with an unnecessarilly open-ended finish that hinges on a major leap of faith from one of the main supporting characters.

Overall though, I was surprised by how entertained I was by Salt. I wouldn't call it a great film, but at the same time, it's a damn good old-school action movie that hits the ground running and doesn't let up - and it's got a killer performance from Angelina Jolie to boot. Some movies are derided as being merely popcorn flicks, but I think Salt is a good example of a fun summer action movie done well.

My Grade: B+

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