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Salt Is A Movie That Has Been Done to Death

Directed by Phillip Noyce
Written by Kurt Wimmer
Sony, 2010

So after years of Mission: Impossible, the Bourne series, James Bond, and TV’s Alias, there isn’t much a secret agent movie has left to do to surprise us anymore.  Virtually anything can happen in the spy movie because, well, that’s what these people are trained to do.  They can get out of any situation with ten times the ingenuity of MacGyver and they can switch allegiances at any moment, and somehow they’ve been so good at doing these things that bad luck never intervenes.

Salt comes from director Phillip Noyce, who is no stranger to the political thriller/spy movie, with the two Harrison Ford/Jack Ryan/Tom Clancy adaptations Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger under his belt, along with the understated The Quiet American.  Noyce is a professional director; it’s rare a movie is bad because of him, but it’s also rare a movie is great because of him either.  Give the guy a great story, he’ll make a great movie.  Give him Salt, and you’ve got the disappointingly average film this probably appears to be on paper.

Here, Noyce re-teams with his Bone Collector star Angelina Jolie, playing Evelyn Salt, a CIA chick who has just been accused by captured Russian informant Orlov (Daniel Olbrychski) of being a Russian spy.  This causes a split between two CIA operatives, Ted Winter (Liev Schreiber), who believes Salt to be innocent, and Peabody (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who doesn’t.  Salt escapes, which leads to a ton of chasin’ and crazy jumps off bridges onto moving vehicles like we’re in The Matrix or Jolie’s last action flick Wanted.  Winter and Peabody believe the President of the Soviet Union is in danger after Orlov accuses Salt of being a would-be assassin, so it’s off to New York to the funeral of the U.S. Vice President, where the Russian President is due to make an appearance.  Seriously, that’s a ton of crazy ass events all happening at once.

I pause here in the story for a couple of reasons.  First, I won’t give away anything that happens next, because it’s a spy movie with your usual twists and turns, not that anyone who has seen tons of spy movies won’t be able to figure them out.  But second, here’s where a movie’s need to throw in surprises and twists inevitably sink a movie that could have been very good.  If you think of how this movie would have likely been made in the 70’s, I would wager that the death of the Vice President would have been the way the movie opened, and it would have set off a chain of events that led to the big set piece with the potential assassination of the Russian President.  I think about these movies trying to keep their secrets, and it’s pretty laughable.  You know what is likely to happen because you’ve seen spy movies before, and you know that certain characters are played by stars for a reason, so the effort to keep secrets ends up being futile anyway.  Why not just throw all your cards on the table from the beginning?  Seriously, more compelling stories get told that way.

I actually know the answer to this because movies are marketed and nothing is left to chance anymore.  You can’t have a spy movie with Angelina Jolie without offering audiences the illusion that you’re trying to fool them.  And it’s just that: an illusion.  It makes the average moviegoer feel smart that they can figure out what’s going to happen before it actually happens.

Salt has some pretty good action scenes and awful credibility.  This isn’t The Matrix or Wanted, where we’ve come to expect a world where there are dimensions we cannot detect on our own.  This is supposed to be the real world.  So when Salt goes in and takes out a whole bunch of Secret Service guys, I wonder how these people ever got jobs.  Seriously, it’s like these Secret Service guys never even trained once in their lives.  They’re just goons in the face of the even more highly trained Evelyn Salt.  A lot of the kick of the Bourne series, as close as it gets to incredulity, is that Jason Bourne thinks about his situation (evading, hiding, running, engaging only when necessary), and he’s rarely fighting hordes of people.  Most of the battles are one-on-one, and I don’t remember one action scene in a Bourne movie that seemed 100% unbelievable.  There are about four or five scenes here that are 100% unbelievable.

You can do worse than Salt, so if you want to see it, you won’t be disappointed.  It gives you what you crave if you’re into this sort of thing.  I would have liked a more thoughtful approach.

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