“Salt” Has Us Thirsting For A Better Movie

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By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic

Back in the day, before the Women’s Lib movement officially began, a cynic shared a fear. He—I think it was a he—fretted that after the ladies finally won equality under the law, they’d proceed to develop the same bad habits usually thought the domain of their male counterparts. They might even play leads in formulaic action movies like “Salt.”

Since then, there have been all sorts of gal secret agents, police detectives and other defenders of the commonweal bearing deadly arms. But in most cases there has been a feminine hook, a dramatic point made, even if ever so slight, that this one-person killing machine was different by one chromosome. Here, la difference makes no difference.

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Except for her appearance, there is nothing about CIA agent Evelyn Salt in either modus operandi or manner that bespeaks gender. ‘Tis we who bring preconceptions to the party. When she leapfrogs from the roof of a semi on a bridge to a truck on the span below, we’re much more impressed than we’d be if Daniel Craig’s 007 made the same jump.

Calculated or not, it’s the reverse discriminatory built in wow factor. Whether in party dress or jeans, this young lady is as striking as the first pretty tomboy you ever met. But she has come to play. And if that means skinning her knee on the sidewalk, suffering an Indian burn or even a bloody nose, what’s it to us? Make a fuss of it and you’ll be sorry.

As such, it’s a more complicated performance than the copycat first impression might imply. Powerful and single-minded, Salt is a force to be contended with all right. But there’s something else going on inside, a secret about her we’re going to have to uncover. And therein lies the so-so twist upon which director Phillip Noyce hangs his hat.

Sour grapes, you say, because I didn’t figure it out any earlier than the director thought it might take the average dolt? Hey, by the time there was enough info to make an educated guess, one too many convolutions had sent me drifting…to dinner, to next week’s film, to how there seemed to be a lot less Jujyfruits™ stuck to movie house floors these days.

Not that Miss Jolie or her superb co-star, Liev Schreiber, as Salt’s boss, agent Ted Winter, is to blame. They’re the strong points. But save for the title character impressing with her unique variation on a type, at the end of the day it’s the same old, same old. Scratch the interpretation and it’s 85% special effects, 12% acting and 3% script.

The cat and mouser starts off with the potential to be a poor man’s “Charade” (1963), albeit without the lofty wit and Mancini’s great score. Leaving work one night, late for an important date with her bug expert spouse (August Diehl), Salt is called back when Russian agent Orlov (Daniel Olbrychski) drops in to defect. Her expertise is needed.

But what’s this? During the interrogation, old Orlov, who was in charge of infiltrating U.S. intelligence with homegrown plants, suggests, for all behind the one-way glass to know, that Ms. Salt is really a Russian mole. Folks start running every which way; steel doors descend; guns start blazing. She’s gone. Well, just another day at the office.

It’s the proverbial spy left out in the cold routine. Now, apparently nobody likes her, except maybe her husband who, alas, has gone missing. In search of him and her destiny, on the run from mysterious loyalties, Jolie’s Salt makes like Mata Hari via Loretta Young, resplendent with costume and hair color changes at every turn. It’s dizzying.

Still, sans a better-finessed screenplay by Kurt Wimmer, the chase scenes eventually run into each other, with all things ultimately hinging on the one trick pony of a plot and its big secret. Dialogue is sultry, quippish or cynical, yet never Bogie and Astor-like. The chemistry between Jolie and Schreiber is OK, but hardly able to save the day.

The story’s biggest flaw is its lack of soul. If it’s the filmmaker’s intention to inform that all this spy business is a big, uncaring, bureaucratic dance, then he has managed it without artistic panache. However, if that isn’t his goal, then he has left us with a rather nightmarish and hollow escapade through the archives of action film clichés.

Which leaves us only to assess how this reflects on that most vaunted of gossip rag icons, La Jolie. While Angelina doesn’t outdo Uma Thurman in the fatal femme dept., just as sure as she will adopt another kid, fans and finances will guarantee a sequel. But separating the blabber from substance, entertainment-wise “Salt” just isn’t worth its salt.

“Salt,” rated PG-13, is a Columbia Pictures release directed by Phillip Noyce and stars Angelina Jolie, Liev Schreiber and Chiwetel Ejiofor. Running time: 100 minutes


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