It’s been a strange summer for blockbuster action movies. While we’ve thoroughly enjoyed the retro shootings and explosions of The Expendables, and the bleak dreamscapes of Christopher Nolan’s Inception, we’ve also sat through the fun but needlessly overwrought plotting of The A-Team, the soulless Knight And Day and, worst of all, the dreary muddle that was The Last Airbender.
What’s immediately refreshing about Salt is that, unlike so many directors whose work we’ve watched this summer, Australian veteran Phillip Noyce really knows how to shoot an action scene. Where The A-Team was all fast cuts and flailing camerawork, Salt‘s cinematography is clean and unfussy. Where The Last Airbender and Knight And Day both relied on CGI to bring its set pieces to life, Salt uses computer imagery with comparative restraint.
The result is an efficient, coolly produced thriller that, in its own way, feels almost as anachronistic as The Expendables, harking back to the high-tech intrigue of Noyce’s 90s Jack Ryan movies, Patriot Games and Clear And Present Danger.
The presence of Angelina Jolie, however, who plays CIA agent Evelyn Salt, gives the movie a refreshingly distinctive, modern sensibility. Had the part gone to Tom Cruise as originally planned, Salt would have undoubtedly emerged as a very different, far less interesting film.
Playing the role of an agent on the run after accusations of being a Russian spy, Jolie is by turns fragile and unstoppable as the movie’s enigmatic lead. To divulge too much of its plot would ruin Salt‘s deftly crafted air of suspense, much of which is derived from the inscrutable nature of Evelyn Salt herself. A complex character with a murky history, we’re never quite sure, from the film’s earliest scenes to shortly before its conclusion, exactly whose side she’s on and what her agenda is.
But while the story itself is typical Tom Clancy-inspired stuff, and occasionally ridiculous when you begin to analyse it, everyone concerned attacks their roles with such fervour that it’s hard not to be swept along with the chase.
And thanks to the sure-footed direction alluded to earlier, Salt‘s chase is an often thrilling one. Jolie makes an effective action heroine, capable of all kinds of superhuman feats, from throwing herself off bridges onto passing lorries, creating makeshift weapons like a latter-day MacGyver, or using a taser gun to remotely control a policeman driving a car. (Wait until you see it on the big screen. It’s a sequence even more bizarre than it sounds.)
There are moments when Salt threatens to enter the same ludicrous territory as Die Hard 4.0, whose ageing protagonist thought nothing of falling 150 feet onto solid tarmac, with Jolie apparently capable of dropping endless distances without inducing so much as a mild headache. Such instances are rare, however, and for the most part, Salt keeps its action refreshingly low key, with some excellently choreographed, bone-crunching fight scenes.
As you’ve probably gathered, Salt is Jolie’s movie, and her presence dominates the film in much the same way as her face provides the focus of its poster. Of the rest of the movie’s small central cast, Liev Schreiber and Chiwetel Ejiofor acquit themselves admirably as Jolie’s colleagues turned hunters, who spend much of the film shouting, running or driving, fruitlessly, in the heroine’s general direction.
While not up to the four-star artistry of Inception, Salt is nevertheless a highly entertaining summer blockbuster, and one refreshingly free from redundant high concept gimmicks or the dread spectre of 3D glasses.
Its apparently familiar plot is filled with just the right number of unexpected left-hand turns to keep its audience guessing, and if writer Kurt Wimmer’s script wanes rather than waxes in its concluding scenes (it’s unfortunate that his final twist is also the most predictable), Jolie’s commitment to her role nevertheless makes Evelyn Salt one of the most intriguing protagonists we’ve seen this summer.