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Salt

dir: Philip Noyce
[img_assist|nid=1315|title=Who is Salt? Who is Pepper? Who is Vinegar? Who is Wasabi?|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=450|height=668]
And you thought it was about the mineral…

Were you disappointed to find out that Angelina Jolie wasn’t going to be playing this most ancient of food additives? I know I was. Imagine her, sitting on a table, in one of those grinders or in a shaker, just sitting there patiently, waiting for someone to pick her up and sprinkle her onto their food during dinner. The twist is, though, the middle-aged people at the dinner are all on a low sodium diet, due to doctor’s orders, and Angelina Jolie goes sadly unused, uneaten, untasted for the whole film.

It’s a story about longing, about unfulfilled potential, about loss of purpose.

Sure, it’s far more sedate than what’s actually on offer here, but there should be a place for films as deathly dull as the one I just described. Salt, this Salt, is possibly a lot of things, but it certainly can’t be accused of being dull.

It’s 90 minutes long, and most of it is action action action, with Jolie’s character of Evelyn Salt, running, punching and shooting her way through almost every minute of that running time. Is it preposterous, is it unbelievable, is it absurd? Yes, to all three, but to assert that all those descriptives are a problem here is to basically forget how absurd all these kinds of spy thrillers are: it’s no more or less fundamentally or conceptually absurd than the Bond flicks, the Jason Bourne franchise, The Fugitive, or any flick where someone evades The Man and a bunch of bad guys for any great length of time.

So from there I guess it becomes the inherently sexist argument of “Well, I can accept Matt Damon as some kind of superspy killing machine, because he’s a big beefy guy. Jolie’s a girl, and thin and feeble-looking enough to look like she’d need help tearing open a packet of salt, let alone play a superspy called Salt.”

To that I have no real argument. Both require suspension of disbelief, because neither Damon nor Jolie are actual ninjas, but I guess it’s down to the individual, and also down to the filmmakers as to whether they can sell it adequately, and whether we can buy it.

Jolie, for all of what her faults might be, as a tabloid individual, as a baby stealer, and as an actress, she does attack her acting roles with relish. She’s not always great in every role, but she can be a damn fine actress, which people forget because she seems to be more famous for always being on the cover of those fantasy chick fulfilment magazines that come with added made-up bullshit about her strange life.

But when she’s on, and the role’s right, she’s more than decent. She’s great. Sure, she’s not always as great as when she played Alexander the Great’s mother Olympia in Oliver Stone’s travesty Alexander, where she inexplicably used a Russian accent. Here she goes one better, and actually speaks in Russian. How’s that for progress?

The premise of Salt is deliciously, old-school absurd. Why? Because it’s set contemporarily, and yet the main villains and the main premise revolves around Soviet-era sleeper agents waiting thirty years to unleash a plot to destroy America.

How nutty is that? Children, Russian children, trained as superspies, and sent to the States with the intention of infiltrating the CIA and other clandestine services, with the intention of achieving some kind of grand plan. It’s beyond ludicrous, it’s beyond absurd, it’s just gloriously fucking funny.

I’m sure the Soviets did actually try shit like this, a whole bunch of years ago, with their usual level of success. And even in recent times, non-Soviet Russian spies have been uncovered in the States trying to extract vital secrets like “Americans like burgers and porn” and cozing up to businessmen and university academics.

But this posits a whole other level of commitment and competence, one that never existed and never will again. A defecting high up former KGB dude appears at a CIA establishment in Washington, claiming to have information about an upcoming assassination attempt on the visiting Russian president. By chance, the person sent in to interrogate him is our main character, Evelyn Salt. By chance, the guy, Orlov (Daniel Olbrychski), relates a tale regarding a long-standing plan to destroy the States on a day designated Day X, where a whole bunch of sleeper agents brought to the States decades ago will be activated to put the plan into effect.

By chance, the main asset-component of this plan is – wait for it! – Evelyn Salt.

But, but, she couldn’t be, could she?

Of course not. Such a plan defies any conception of plausibility. But her co-workers and compatriots, like her supervisor Ted Winter (Liev Schreiber) and some other guy called Peabody (Chiwitel Ejiofor), can’t take the risk, so they start chasing her with all the passion and success that these flicks usually muster.

Though she looked no more threatening than an accountant / executive assistant initially, she now gets her Serious Face on, and transforms more believably than a Transformer into a superspy who can knock out whole bunches of people with household detergents and by throwing guns at people when she runs out of bullets.

She can also jump from bridge to speeding truck to speeding tanker to motorbike with barely a hair out of place. Jolie’s stuntwomen, the people operating the wires attached to her harness and the sparingly used CGI all work together to make Jolie look like the badass everyone secretly hopes she is. She’s done action-y roles before, but they’ve never been in the service of an action vehicle that’s worked as well as it works here.

Jolie is such a strange but compelling looking person that it’s a bit absurd when she tries to disguise herself as a regular person. When she does so, dying her hair blue-black, and wearing cool long leather coats, it’s kind of like someone trying to hide their identity by screaming “LOOK AT ME, I’M EVER SO COOL”, but this is a movie after all. Though it seems like she might be the person the Russians assert, she also seems to be more focussed not on proving her innocence, but on saving her husband Mike (August Diehl) from certain death, and also uncovering the next stages of the diabolical plan so ludicrous Boris Yeltsin himself on one of his worst benders would laugh at it until blood-tinged vodka shot out of his nose.

My rule of thumb has always been that if I’m enjoying a flick, the unbelievable elements or the plotholes don’t bug me as much, and I’m going to stick with that here. It’s enjoyable enough in its way, and it’s doubly enjoyable watching Jolie at her arsekicking best. This isn’t a movie to watch for the dialogue: it’s all about momentum, and this flick has oodles of it. It also doesn’t outstay its welcome, which I appreciated greatly.

That being said, the whole premise is fucking ludicrous, and the actions taken by most of the characters not called Evelyn Salt are fucking ludicrous, right from the goddamn start. The very way the ex-Soviet chap kicks things off by marching into the CIA building is beyond insane in terms of initiating the plan. Wouldn’t a text message have sufficed? What about tipping everyone in the States off to your plan when you didn’t need to, thus jeopardising your whole plan right from the start, for no other reason than wanting to kick off with a bang, literally, in the case of one of those nifty shoe knives being used to kick some poor motherfuckers off?

What about the idea that kids in the Soviet Union could be indoctrinated in such a way that 30 years later, they would still worship a dead empire and identify with a gone ideology enough to sacrifice themselves? It’s hard enough to get kids to believe in the Tooth Fairy / Santa Claus / Jesus initially, and those beliefs fade pretty quickly as well. The idea that people could be switched on like this is pretty far-fetched, even in a cartoony-comic book action universe.

And the most ludicrous part of the premise is they expect us to believe that a character that looks like Salt could fall in love with and marry a guy that looks like a bridge troll. Did she fail to answer his three riddles or something?

August Diehl might be a great actor (he was great as the Nazi major who causes everything to go to shit in the underground tavern in Inglourious Basterds), but, damn, is he an affront to the human eye. I say this as a fairly brutish looking individual myself. All I’m saying is, when they ever make a film about the great evil-looking actor Peter Lorre, co-star of such classic flicks as M, Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon (which they never will), then the man to go for to play him is definitely this spiderologist here.

It does make for a hot scene when Jolie milks that spider though, talk about heat wafting off the screen! I didn’t buy their relationship the way the flick needs us to, since they’re practically never shown together, and it seemed almost like a contractual obligation that she not spend too much time with him. What, was Brad standing just out of view, repeatedly punching his fist into his other palm, with a threatening expression on his face? The kids, too, making finger across the throat gestures?

It doesn’t hamper the best set pieces, though, all this palaver. The part where she keeps tasering a cop in order to make him floor the accelerator during a car chase is flat out hilarious. The assault on a ship full of Russkies is well handled. And the moment where she kills someone using the chains of her handcuffs is probably one of the single loopiest and greatest moments in a non-Hong Kong action flick I’ve seen this decade.

It’s almost quaint to be able to ignore the last thirty years of Earth history to be able to go back once more to the (we thought dry) well of Soviets/Russians as antagonists, but it can make for an entertaining spy/action flick, as it does here. Of course Salt is more competent and able than any spy in the history of espionage, and knows a whole heap of shit no-one inside or outside of the CIA or anywhere else could possibly know. But that’s the main part of the attraction for these kinds of flicks. They’re centred around characters who are fiercely patriotic and superskilled, not people who are lazy and still don’t know how to solve a Rubik’s cube three decades after their debut, like me and thee.

There’s the promise / threat of a possible franchise at the end, and, look, as long as they don’t go insane with the shaky camerawork like they (being other filmmakers) went with The Bourne Ultimatum, I won’t mind too much. It could be fun.

7 times those lips of Jolie’s should have played a bigger role in saving the President, possibly by deflecting bullets with their sheer unnaturalness out of 10

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“Why did you kill him?”
- “Because somebody had to.” – Salt.

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