July 22, 2010

Stay Cinematically Healthy by Avoiding Salt in Your Diet

Angelina Jolie: Spreading goodwill (for UNHCR) and taking names...

Well that didn't take long, did it? Or maybe it was just a dream. Only a week after moviegoers were treated to Inception's intelligent and original story (albeit maybe it not quite as intelligent as advertised), it's time for us to bracingly wake up to reality. Or, depending on if the totem is spinning, accept that this is "limbo". Wherever we are, it's a dreadfully dull place, where movies like Salt deliver a steady stream of mind-numbing clichés and altogether stupid plots. This puffy spy thriller is a particularly brainless affair: half-Bond, half-Bourne, half-baked, and, mercifully, half an hour shorter than expected, when it doesn't end but simply stops mid-scene.

Originally produced as a star vehicle for Tom Cruise before he dropped out for what can only be assumed was the disastrous Knight and Day, Salt was rewritten for Angelina Jolie (the "best woman in the world" who, we should remember, "dies for our sins"), who predictably signed on to play yet another sexy assassin. The change in gender of our anti-hero is perfectly appropriate for the purpose of the story, but that doesn't excuse the eye-rolling flourishes of Jolie making kissy faces and tiger scowls during hand-to-hand combat, or inexplicably removing her panties and using them to shroud a security camera.

But more bothersome to me than the obligatory sexualization of Jolie's heroics was the obligatory simplification of international relations. Maybe that's to be expected from director Philip Noyce, but even his Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger had more restrained and more believable global perspectives - even some actual relevance. The coincidental timing of the recently outed Russian spy ring notwithstanding, Salt's premise is truly outrageous: a Soviet underlord hatched a plan 50 years ago to "destroy America" in which he would simply swap out American citizens with Russian sleeper spies who would wait years until they received strike orders. Mind you, not spies who would pretend to be new American citizens (as was the case with the Illegals Program), but pretend to be already existing Americans, with real families and real identities. How this could possibly work on the scale outlined in the film is never explained, but it started with Lee Harvey Oswald and has apparently ended with Evelyn Salt.

But if a preposterous spy conspiracy is one thing, our national security is something else entirely. Salt illustrates a post-9/11 American security infrastructure that can be effectively disarmed with the clever efforts of just one person. Break out of a secure CIA building? Just walk out the door or, if pressed, smash open a window. Assassinate a president? Hardly a challenge. Sneak into the White House? Actually nevermind, maybe that is as easy as shown here. Get into a reinforced secure White House bunker and launch a nuclear attack? Tricky, but still very doable. (And don't get me started on the "security" with which the most dangerous suspect in the world is detained: handcuffs connected by a two foot chain.)

Related to all of that breaking and entering, what separates the Bourne films - and even the Bond films for that matter - from Salt in a significant way is the level of physical aptitude required by the characters. Bourne's biggest challenges, for the most part, are jumping across rooftops and recovering from bruising brawls. Bond, meanwhile, has the luxury of gadgets to disarm his assailants and propel himself out of a fracas. But Salt, and to be fair, Knight and Day, present characters performing acts of unprecedented physicality. Between the two of them we have our heroes crash-landing commercial jets, falling from buildings, bouncing on and between speeding cars, trucks, and motorcycles, and jumping and sliding down 8-story elevator shafts (even John McClane struggled to pull that one off).

You could accuse me for applying a double standard to Jolie as a female action star, but had Tom Cruise remained in the role these stunts would have looked just as ludicrous. Of course, maybe I'm being ludicrous by suggesting that the action should have been less outlandish than the vapid dialogue dreamt up by screenwriter Kurt Wimmer (Street Kings, Law Abiding Citizen), which shines with key exchanges like: "Why did you kill him?"/"Because someone had to.", and "What are you going to do?"/"Kill 9 million people. Enrage a billion Muslims."

Indeed, it was probably my own fault. Without ever having seen a trailer for this film, I had laughably naive hopes that despite my (unreasonable) disdain for Angelina Jolie, Salt would offer some kind of fresh look at international spycraft and post-Cold War relations between the U.S. and Russia. I even considered that maybe Hollywood would get it right, and that the real-life Russian spy incident would share some ironic similarities. Alas, all Salt got right was the right set of 1980's/Gorbachev-era stereotypes (e.g., Russians as vodka-drinking, fur-wearing. nuclear weapon-obsessed megalomaniacs). Since we're in the 1980's mindset, then, here's another blast from the past: stick to your "low sodium diet" by consuming less Salt, starting with this unpalatable movie.


  1. I was in the mood for a preposterous but entertaining summer action flick without any superheroes running around in their underoos so I was fully prepared to disagree with you on this one (I liked Knight and Day after all), but it was pretty much a waste of 90 minutes. I didn't have the same issues as you did, I was just kind of bored by it.

    A little surprised by the positive reviews from some really smart critics.

  2. Well I clearly walked into this under the wrong impression, so I was double disappointed that it was not just empty fluff, but really lackluster empty fluff. I can't remember any "whoa" moments and the Hallmark commercial love flashbacks made things even worse.

    As far as reviews go, I think Ebert's 4-star rave is the one that I'm struggling with the most. He shreds the plot and basically praises the film on the chase scenes (was there more than one?) and Jolie's "animal energy", whatever that means.

  3. I've noticed three really smart reviewers who coincidentally disliked Inception - Zacharek, O'Hehir and Edelstein - who give the stupidity of Salt a free pass.

    Sometimes I think critics need to establish their populist cred by holding their noses and "liking" the occasional popcorn flick.

    In this case, the action was fairly old school so it appeals especially to the people who hate Nolan's style of confusing action.

    Anyway, there's another espionage thriller opening this week in limited release called Farewell that might be more of what we're looking for.

  4. Yeah I just picked up on Farewell's similarities to Salt. I have to wait a couple weeks for it but I'll probably give it a shot for my spy fix. And about the action in Salt, you're right that a number of critics seemed to praise the lack or relatively low amount of CGI. That's fine, but I don't know if you want that to be the real strong point of a movie like this.

  5. An intelligent treatment of a movie not even worth the effort of a review. Talk about ludicrous security - she's just supposedly assassinated the Russian president and they put her in a NYPD car with a couple of cops in the back with her. Wow! After all she's done? That's confidence!

  6. You could accuse me for applying a double standard to Jolie as a female action star, but had Tom Cruise remained in the role these stunts would have looked just as ludicrous.

    The only thing that the presence of Tom Cruise would have improved would have been the running scenes -- Tom just runs faster, or looks like he runs faster, or looks cooler as he runs faster (take your pick). But that would have been offset by the mysteriousness of Jolie. Really, she's pretty perfect for the part in theory. The film just has too many flaws.

  7. Thanks, Hokahey, though I've just seen that Jason actually put forth even greater effort than me to outline some of the inexcusable flaws here (inexcusable mostly because of the pass they've been given by so many critics).

    Jason, I'm out as a Cruise fan so it shouldn't be much of a surprise that I agree with you. Cruise has some great running scenes going all the way back to The Firm (maybe my favorite one through Memphis), but if we agree that Jolie was theoretically a good choice, we also agree that even Cruise couldn't have saved it. Alas, I found him to be the one bright spot in Knight and Day and that was even more unbearable than Salt.


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