The secret ambition of ‘Salt’ (and Angelina Jolie)

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Angelina Jolie in 'Salt.' (Sony Pictures)
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I went into Salt expecting a big, loud, incoherent, derivative action film without a single smart bone in its plasticized body. A film with no personality, no taste, no sense of style. And yet another film that makes you wonder whatever happened to Angelina Jolie, whose acclaimed early work in Girl, Interrupted, the HBO biopic Gia and the TNT miniseries “George Wallace” marked her as a potentially great screen star, a ferociously charismatic actress in a pinup girl’s body.

What I saw, to my surprise and delight, was the best pure action film to come out of Hollywood in a long time, featuring Jolie’s most multilayered, carefully calibrated performance in ages (though so minimalist and unassuming that inattentive critics won’t notice), and action scenes so extravagantly absurd but smartly staged and executed that the movie’s DVD should be placed alongside Speed, Die Hard and the original The Matrix on a shelf marked THIS IS HOW TO DO IT.

Jolie plays the title character, Evelyn Salt, a former CIA field agent who’s working in a Washington, D.C. office following a long stint as a prisoner (and torture victim) in North Korea. The story kicks off when a man who claims to be a legendary Cold War agent named Orlov (Daniel Olbrychski) shows up at Salt’s office bearing alleged information about a sleeper-cell plot to assassinate the Russian president, who’s about to go visit New York City to attend the funeral of America’s recently deceased vice president. Salt and her coworker, Ted Winter (Liev Schreiber), decide to do a quick preliminary interrogation of Orlov to find out if he’s a valuable asset or just a scam artist; Salt, who was en route to an anniversary dinner with her German husband, steps into the room with Orlov and exchanges a few pleasantries, whereupon Orlov—calmly, and in plain view of Winter other CIA agents behind the two way glass—tags our heroine as a Russian spy herself.

Is Salt a Russian spy? Is she, in fact, part of the sleeper cell Orlov claims to know about— a diabolical gang of zombie-like assassins who were planted in the United States decades ago and are programmed to kill and wreak havoc even though the Cold War has long since ended? Angelina Jolie is a star, and stars don’t play zombie-like killers of Americans —or do they?

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Kurt Wimmer’s screenplay keeps you guessing, and the sense that we’ve lost our movie-going bearings and can’t trust the old clichés deepens thanks to Philip Noyce’s direction. (It’s misdirection, really; his “meaningful” close-ups start to seem as ruthlessly calculated as a street-corner three-card-monte player’s admonition to watch carefully, watch carefully folks!).

The minute Orlov tags our girl as a secret double-agent, and Winter and another colleague, Peabody (Chiwetel Ejiofor) insist that she enter interrogation herself and answer a few questions of her own for precaution’s sake, Salt flees the room, and the movie switches into manhunt (or womanhunt) mode and becomes a national security state cousin of The Fugitive. Winter, Peabody and several cops in riot gear scour the building and the surrounding neighborhood for Salt, who with each passing second proves herself to be less a traumatized government desk jockey than a female version of James Bond or Jason Bourne, or those stony-faced ass-kickers that Steven Seagal used to play before he got fat and started wearing Gerry Spence’s cast-off wardrobe.

I’d like to break the film down in detail, the better to explain exactly how it attains the privileged state that an action film-loving friend once described, with great admiration, as “Maximum Ludicrosity.” But I won’t, because I went into Salt knowing little and expecting less, and each new wrinkle caught me by surprise—a rare occurrence if you’ve seen as many action movies as I have. Suffice it to say that this is not a deep film about matters of urgent political importance. It’s so loosely tethered to reality that it’s a step removed from science fiction. It’s a ride, an adrenaline-jacked dream of paranoia, pursuit and derring-do, starring a (deliberate) blank-slate character whose real mission is to keep you wondering who she is and what she’s up to.

Wimmer’s script has great fun playing with the audience’s expectations—not just of the fugitive-mode thriller, the Manchurian Candidate-derived political nightmare and the leaping-off-walls-and-kicking-people-in-the-face subgenre of action picture, which has become the default mode of late, but Hollywood’s kiss-the-star’s-ass mentality, which mandates that once an performer reaches a certain level of fame and power, he or she can never play characters who do unsympathetic things (unless it’s an Oscar-bait Hannibal Lecter-type role).

Salt is not a likable character. In fact she’s very much in the tradition of The Manchurian Candidate’s Raymond Shaw.

When I say that, I don’t mean to imply that she’s a murderous wind-up-toy who’s been activated by her handlers (though that may be the case) but that Wimmer’s script and Jolie’s opaque-yet-compelling performance deprive the audience of a fixed vantage point. When she goes somewhere, you don’t always know where she’s going or why. When she drops a bit of information on another character that seems to prove beyond all doubt that she’s innocent, or guilty, of being a spy, or an evil assassin, it often contradicts what came before, or suggests that there are even more pieces to the puzzle and they won’t all join together until the end.

None of the above should imply that Salt is an intellectually demanding movie, or even an especially ambitious one. It’s very short—90 minutes and change. The characters are archetypal, and their only complexity comes from how Noyce, Wimmer and the actors set up certain expectations (cemented by years of watching inferior films in this vein) and then subvert them, or validate them (or better yet, subvert them and then validate them).

Noyce isn’t a chop-chop-chop filmmaker of the type that covers screen action with multiple cameras and then gloms it all together in the editing room rather than actually directing it. The compositions are sleek and functional but never ostentatiously pretty. Every shot has a distinct purpose. The cutting—by Stuart Baird, who edited the original Die Hard—is fast, often dazzlingly fast, but never so fast that you’re in doubt about what’s happening or where the combatants stand in relation to each other. (This isn’t one of those condescending faux-feminist action movies in which a tiny woman is depicted as the physical equal of a huge man; when the small, slender heroine defeats bull-necked male enemies, it’s because she’s smarter and faster than they are. She’s less a bruiser than a high-speed chess master.)

In some ways it’s the perfect marriage of digital- and analog-era action movie traditions (watch Raiders of the Lost Ark again and pay attention to the shots; you’ll be amazed how long Spielberg holds them without cutting). Salt gives modern audiences what they’ve been conditioned to want and expect, including feats of Olympic-caliber acrobatic prowess tossed off as if they’re no big deal (when Salt jumps off a freeway overpass and lands perfectly on the roof of a passing 18-wheeler, the film officially leaves the realm of the real and never looks back, which is too bad—it was excruciatingly tense when Salt was in MacGyver mode, improvising a homemade explosive device from a fire extinguisher and a ceramic table leg). But it also grounds the absurdity in physical realism. Salt sweats, gets dirty and gets knocked around, brutally, and by the end she’s suffered more damage than John McClane after he walked across those chunks of broken glass. Her final lines of dialogue are delivered through a bloodied and bruised face, nearly as pulped-up as Sylvester Stallone’s at the end of Rocky II.

The film is also fascinating for its understated commentary on gender roles in the action genre, specifically the way that this mode of filmmaking desexualizes its female stars, and the many places in which the deceptive femme fatale persona of noir films overlaps with the (s)he-man stereotype when a female star plays an action heroine who might have dark secrets.

You may already know that Wimmer wrote this script many years ago as a vehicle for Tom Cruise. I’m glad it got made with Jolie, because the inevitable rewrites complicated and deepened the main character. In tailoring Salt for Jolie, the filmmakers didn’t just ignore her gender, they incorporated it, and addressed it with subtlety and wit. For all its sound and fury, Salt isn’t just a standard-issue macho action picture in drag. Though it never announces itself as such, it’s also very much a movie about being a woman in a man’s world.

You can see this illustrated in the flashes of resentment and coiled rage that creep across the heroine’s face as she realizes that the orderly domestic life she’s fought so hard to create has been wrenched from her grasp. You can see it in the film’s flashbacks to Salt’s childhood as an orphaned adoptee; as an adult there’s something vulnerable and haunting about this tabula rasa character, a parentless child who seems to be on track to become the mom she never had, and then has the chance snatched away from her by circumstance, and who might (if Orlov proves credible) be a worker drone—a secret soldier for a long-gone Soviet fatherland, daddy’s little girl with a gun. (In one very funny scene, Salt pauses during a hot pursuit to help a little girl with her homework.)

Most of all it’s there in the fleeting moments in which Salt deliberately divests herself of the usual feminine signifiers or else uses them for some stereotypically masculine purpose: taking off her high-heeled shoes while navigating a stairwell in the opening action scene; slipping off her panties and using them to block the lens of a surveillance camera; buying a Maxi-Pad from a vending machine in a nightclub restroom and using it to staunch the blood from a combat wound in her side.

Salt may not fit the unimaginative viewer’s definition of a substantive film. It plays like escapism, pure and simple. But there’s real intelligence in the writing, the direction and the performances. Much like Salt herself, it is not what it appears to be.