Film review: Salt
2010 – 100mn – 12A Directed by Phillip Noyce. Starring Angelina Jolie, Live Schreiber, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Daniel Olbrychski.
ANGELINA Jolie is the world’s last blockbuster movie star. In an age when special effects, 3D cartoons, and video game franchises are more bankable than a movie star’s name and face, Angelina Jolie is the only person in the world who can still be relied upon to “open” a movie (i.e, make it a commercial success the first weekend it’s out). We love George Clooney, but let’s be honest – none of us rushed to see The Men Who Stare at Goats, Burn After Reading or Leatherheads. We love reading about Jennifer Aniston, but none of us would be caught dead watching her in anything other than a Friends rerun. And let’s face it, now that we’ve realised Leo’s acting comes down to frowning and looking stressed all the time, we’re happy to take him or leave him.
Jolie, however, has taken films as varied as Wanted, Clint Eastwood’s Changeling, Kung Fu Panda, and Beowulf, and made them commercial successes. She wins awards, she sells magazines, she sells charities. She fascinates us without ever forcing herself upon magazine covers every time one of her films comes out. We want to know about every new tattoo, every new haircut on one of her rainbow children. She divides us and makes us gossip. There’s something primal and animalistic about her. We just want to see her.
Salt is the perfect vehicle for her. It showcases her action chops, and if there’s one thing no one can disagree with, it’s that Angelina Jolie is the finest female action star in cinema’s history (the noughties are her decade the way the 80s were Arnie’s and Sly’s and the 90s belong to Bruce Willis). She plays Evelyn Salt, a CIA agent who goes on the run after a Russian defector accuses her of being a Russian spy, planted within the organization as a sleeper agent. Her boss (Live Schreiber) wants to protect her, but his FBI colleague (Chiwetel Ejiofor) actually believes she may be a double agent, and wants to lock her up and interrogate her. So Salt/Angie goes on the run to clear her name.
Only, in true Cold War fashion, nothing is as it seems. You’ll spend most of the film wondering if Salt indeed IS a Russian spy, and I won’t spoil the ending by revealing it, although thriller fans may see it coming from miles away. Doesn’t matter. The writing’s creative and surprising, the supporting cast commit to the glorious absurdity of the thrill ride, and there are enough twist and turns to keep you guessing even through a second and third viewing. It’s a skillfully crafted blockbuster, made without arrogance and never condescending to its subject or its audience.
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The film is essentially one big chase, from first to last frame. Veteran director Phillip Noyce (he directed Dead Calm, Harrison Ford’s Tom Clancy films, and worked with Jolie before on The Bone Collector) orchestrates the whole thing beautifully. He shoots the stunt scenes to showcase how much Jolie commits to them: in full shots we see her running down a bridge, jumping off it, landing on a moving truck, and then jumping from truck to truck down the motorway. There’s definitely trickery involved, but there’s also no doubt that Jolie physically performs most of this sequence herself, and it’s a wonder to behold. She crashes cars, bounces off walls, zooms by on a motorcycle, breaks people’s noses, all as naturally and effortlessly as a fish swims.
Amidst all the noise and wreckage, it’s easy to forget that Angelina Jolie is a fantastic actress. She roots the movie in every possible sense. She makes Evelyn Salt believable and likable. There’s a very small scene early on in the movie where, while at her desk at the CIA office, she’s online trying to learn how to fold napkins in a fancy way, because it’s her anniversary and she wants everything to be perfect for her husband. It’s the smallest moment, the tiniest bit of business. Jolie fills it with the whole truth of her marital relationship, and it becomes the moment that makes every other emotional beat in the film work.
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She is also – whatever your gender or sexual preference – gorgeous to look at. There’s something plastically awesome and intimidating about every inch of her. In Salt she wears a blonde wig, a black wig, contact lenses, military uniform, and – best of all - tight leather clothes. Noyce knows how to shoot her, how to feature the eyes and lips in close-ups, and the toned muscles, bum and legs in the action shots.
Watching this woman beat grown men up is an almost sensual experience.