"Salt" wants so much to be "The Bourne Identity."
It has all the elements. It has a strong lead actor, a cavalry of character actors who look good in suits, lots of hand-held camera cinematography and a dark, twisted aura.
Written by: Kurt Wimmer
Starring: Angelina Jolie, Liev Schreiber, Chiwetel Ejiofor
But despite it’s excellent qualities (and there are many) there’s something missing from this otherwise rousing spy thriller. It’s got the cool factor and the look of "Bourne." But it’s got none of the soul.
"Salt" refers to Evelyn Salt (Angelina Jolie), a CIA agent who’s forced to run from her employers (live Schreiber and the fantastic Chiwetel Ejiofor)when she’s accused of being a Russian spy by a defector.
Salt was originally written as a man’s role, and it’s fascinating to see how the plot adapts itself to having a woman in the role. Instead of rescuing a wife and baby, Salt sets off to find her sweet arachnologist husband (August Diehl) who’s been taken in the wake of her charges. We don’t often see this reversal in a major Hollywood picture, but director Phillip Noyce and writer Kurt Wimmer manage to navigate the startling new idea with almost blas© confidence. The only bump is when Salt actually needs to dress up as a man to get into the White House- it’s a little too on-the-nose, a little too graduate school gender theory for my taste.
Wimmer’s script may navigate gender bending with aplomb, but when it comes to a well-honed action film he tends to fall flat. The problem with "Salt" is it’s too big. There’s a conspiracy plot involving the Russian government planting long-term sleeper agents in the U.S. Plausible, especially considering the recent news that Russian spies have been spending the last 20 years hanging out in Montclair, N.J. But in this movie their mission is nothing less than killing the President and "taking over America." It’s an old-school, dated story, based in Cold War paranoia that just doesn’t apply today. Even more, the plot loses focus about halfway through, confusing Salt’s back story and getting lost in the woods of its own twists and turns.
Jolie is probably the only woman who could pull off this plot without looking ridiculous. In one of the most memorable shots in the movie, she stands on the Staten Island Ferry, wrapped in a fur stole and wearing a magnificent Russian hat. You’re both amused by the ludicrousness of the image, but because it’s Jolie it makes a weird sort of sense. Her beauty is so unusual, so foreign, why wouldn’t she be posing, looking like Julie Christie in "Dr. Zhivago"? She’s flanked by Schreiber, doing a delightfully campy Southern accent, and Ejiofor, who I would watch reading out of the phone book (as long as he did it shirtless). All three are people who you love to look at- the way they move, gesture, even the way they sit down. Diehl, who had a small role in "Inglourious Basterds", fits in perfectly with their coterie; he’s able to stoke the chemistry with Jolie in just a few short scenes.
The action scenes are, unfortunately, a problem. In their desperation to make the film PG-13, they appear to have edited the scenes to eliminate blood, injury and visceral power from the shots. This makes for a weirdly clean, and soulless action scene, and one where the hand-held camera simply doesn’t work. I certainly don’t need to see brains and viscera, but these sterile battles just can’t compare to better shot scenes in "Bourne" or the latest "Bond" films.
There is, however, a pretty awesome scene where Salt makes a rocket launcher out of office furniture and cleaning supplies. I wish we could have seen more scenes of that style- a sort of resourceful action sequence that doesn’t rely on tricky editing or impossible technology to achieve its ends. "Salt" wants to be "Bourne" but Noyce forgot what made "Bourne" great: dirty, raw action scenes balanced with tightly controlled plot. "Salt" is too unbalanced. It wants to do too many things. And in the end, despite it’s positives, it’s actually accomplished nothing.