Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Salt

If Inception was a special effects extravaganza, then Salt was a stunt-apalooza. As a result, Salt is yet another entry into the category of fairly forgettable summer action movies, falling into the pool of summertime cinema with barely a ripple of effect anywhere else.

If you've seen a commercial or trailer for Angelina Jolie's latest, then you've seen the best of the scenes of the movie, plus a few scenes that aren't even in the movie. The plot is pretty easily laid out: a potential defector walks into a CIA building (with very little attention paid to how this Russian agent knew that the shell corporation the CIA was using actually housed facilities) and describes a conspiracy by agents wanting a return to the old Soviet state to plant sleepers in the US government. Jolie's Evelyn Salt is explicitly named as one of those agents, and so the chase begins.

The action sequences are interspersed with flashbacks of Salt's courtship and relationship with her husband, Mike Krause (played fleetingly by August Diehl), a world renowned arachnologist. Via these scenes, we are given to believe that Salt is running, not out of fear of capture, but because Krause is in danger from the conspiracy. Even though her coworkers and sudden pursuers, Liev Schreiber (with a horrible and intermittent Southern accent) and Chiwitel Ejiofor, hear her repeated pleas to protect her husband, they have several conversations—usually in the midst of a chase scene—regarding why Salt is running from them. The marital flashbacks also hint that there is something bigger going on than what is explicitly laid out on the screen.

What follows is a thinly veiled excuse to have stuntpeople crash cars and jump from moving vehicles. Unlike Inception, where part of the point of the plot is to draw back the curtain and hint at the bones on which creativity hangs, the infrastructure for Salt is ineffectively hidden by bombast and thin logic, thereby exposing what most movies really want to remain hidden. The acting is utilitarian, since the characters deviate very little from the tropes and clich├ęs of most spy movies. I was somewhat astonished to find Andre Braugher in the last half-hour of the movie, more of a piece of the scenery than an actor and so a total waste of his talents (he doesn't even get a name in the movie; he's just credited as "Secretary of Defense).

There are even some faint attempts at misdirection but they are fairly easy to work through if you have any experience with spy movies at all. There is at the movie's heart a very interesting nugget of story potential—an agent whose actions are based almost entirely on the purely personal, rather than political, rationale. Because of this, and the lead character's use by everyone around her, Salt becomes a pale shadow of the much tighter Bourne movies, even owing a lot of the cinematography and "shaky cam" technique to the far superior trilogy.

But ultimately, the plot is not what this movie is about. This movie is about action: running, jumping, shooting, driving, and punching. And there's a lot of it in Salt. Like the rest of the movie, it's not terribly creative, but it is a lot of fun while you're watching it. Salt spends a lot of time kicking off walls to give her punches and kicks a little more torque, and it is awful pretty to watch those who would stand against her go flying. But they're empty calories; you feel kind of sated at movie's end, but a few hours later, you end up wishing you had something more substantial to gnaw on.

On reflection, the best thing I can say about Salt was that the chilly theater and yummy coke-and-cherry-mixed Icee offered a welcome respite from the 100-plus degree temperatures outside. It was a pleasant 100 minutes, worth the matinee prices we paid, but hardly anything remarkable.

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