Words: Ced Yuen
Director: Phillip Noyce
Cast: Angelina Jolie, Liev Schreiber, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Daniel Olbrychski
“Who is Salt?” ask the posters. “You think everyone’s who they say they are?” ask the trailers. The point being that this is a character of ambiguity. But at one point, even the filmmakers themselves didn’t know. The project originally placed Tom Cruise in the eponymous role, but he backed out to do action-romantic-comedy 'Knight And Day'. Cue a series of rewrites: Angelina Jolie was signed up, male became female, and Edwin became Evelyn. So – who is Salt?
Evelyn Salt is a CIA agent accused of being a Russian spy. She must straighten things out, and ensure the safety of her husband, by breaking faces and blowing things up. She is a girl in a boy’s game. Her character is a full-on invasion of territory dominated by Bond, Bourne and Bauer. The film assimilates the best parts of each franchise, and adds its own twist. It has espionage cool, brutality and a disregard for protocol, yet it doesn’t feel tired because this time it’s done with a woman.
The action woman routine is not new, but it’s never been presented seriously. 'Tomb Raider' had explosions, but then Lara Croft (portrayed by Jolie in the film franchise) is a disproportionately-bosomed videogame character. TV series 'Alias' tried to replicate Bond’s gun and gadgets formula, but Sydney Bristow was reduced to Action Barbie with a colourful collection of wigs. Evelyn Salt, however, is first and foremost a spy. No puns, no flashy tools, no bullshit.
Jolie has already demonstrated her worth over the years, both as an action girl and as a ‘proper’, character-delving actress. Replacing Tom Cruise with her is a pretty safe bet, and she doesn’t disappoint. In a film that makes a point of masking the true intentions of its central character, the glue that holds everything together is the level of uncertainty that the film can maintain. Jolie seamlessly switches between vicious and vulnerable, resulting in a convincing prey-predator performance that keeps you guessing.
Action fans will find plenty to enjoy. The whole affair is energetic, with barely a slow moment in the tight 99-minute runtime. This is no-fluff storytelling at its best. Every scene has a purpose. The auxiliary characters are intentionally underdeveloped narrative devices, mere accessories to Jolie’s face-breaking rampage. The action itself is neatly done, brutal like Bourne and Daniel Craig-era Bond but with the Michael Bay Effect toned way down. The camerawork is still handheld and shaky at times, but director Phillip Noyce is sensible enough to let the action, not the editing, do the talking. The result: action scenes that are, most of the time, both kinetic *and* coherent.
'Salt' is not about the all-out silly fun of 'The A-Team', or the doom and gloom of 'The Departed'. Most of the time, it does a pretty good job of balancing serious storytelling with fun. Where it goes wrong is the over-ambition of certain stunts, with one or two moments really pushing the boundaries. It doesn’t go anywhere near as far as the car vs. helicopter/truck vs. fighter jet scenes in 'Die Hard 4', but these silly moments can distract. Still, these are minor flaws in an otherwise enjoyable experience. Regardless of how much the film tries to keep a straight face, credibility has never been the point of action films.
Who is Salt? She is 007’s substitute in the face of MGM’s current financial troubles. Bond 23 will not be making an appearance any time soon, and in the meanwhile, audiences have a new franchise. 'Salt' is a capable, and very welcome, alternative.
'Salt' was released in the UK on August 18th and is in cinemas now.