Sunday, July 25, 2010

Film Review #231: Salt
Director: Phillip Noyce
Cast: Angelina Jolie, Liev Schreiber, Chiwetel Ejiofor

It’s true that Angelina Jolie’s fugitive spy Evelyn Salt will remind you of Jason Bourne’s sheer full-tilt physical courage and propensity to throw himself off high places. And if you caught the third installment, The Bourne Ultimatum (2007), you’ll be able to see Salt’s nighttime leap from the helicopter into an icy Potomac coming – though Salt director Phillip Noyce doesn’t repeat that mesmerizing shot from below Bourne’s still body when, stunned and drifting, back-lit by some light far above, he suddenly jerks to life, making of New York’s freezing East River a place of re-birth for this man with no identity. What Salt won’t remind you of is Tom Cruise, originally destined for the part.

Many readers know – as I write this, Salt battles Inception for box-office first place – that Evelyn Salt is a CIA operative whom a “walk-in” Russian defector named Orlov (Daniel Olbrychski) accuses, as she interrogates him, of being a Russian infiltrator set to assassinate Russia’s current president when he gives the eulogy at the funeral of the US vice-president in Manhattan. The two men had engineered a major thaw between their nations. Orlov’s claim turns on a decades-old, Cold War-era plot to train a vast, fanatic, unbreakable team of Russians from birth to pass as ordinary folk until “Day X.” To leap ahead, the plan also involves hi-jacking the US nuclear codes to launch strikes on Tehran and Mecca so that Muslims will be provoked to finish destroying the US.

Well, Salt is a double agent, though what she’ll do with that, and why, and what the set-up really is, provide the pull here. Jolie has said that re-writing the part for a woman was tricky. For example, this character wouldn’t have a child because a mother wouldn’t so endanger her child. But Salt has a husband, Mike (August Diehl), a spider researcher, a gentler, more retiring type than we expect for Jolie’s partner, so her fear is for his safety. All of Salt’s relationships are with men – except for the little girl who agrees to look after Salt’s Toto-like dog when she first goes on the run – and none of them is quite Atticus Finch, so next time I’d like another woman in the mix. The excellent actors Liev Schreiber and Chiwetel Ejiofor play, respectively, her laid-back superior Ted Winter and the more aggressive, suspicious counter-intelligence agent Peabody, who see-saw over how to contain her. Only once, as a last resort, does Salt use her feminine wiles and for a minute you’re not sure she doesn’t mean it.

Go back further than Bourne to Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley and you grasp better what Jolie has done here. Of course, it’s scarcely possible to imagine a host of women’s film roles without that Ripley ancestor, especially in that quartet’s second film, Aliens, directed by James Cameron in 1986. Believe me, some fans can recite much of the dialogue from repeated watchings of Aliens. There’s the time when the gutsy soldier Vasquez (Jenette Goldstein) plunges down a tunnel to certain death with the line, “Let’s rock and roll!” Or the exhilarating moment when Ripley, clad in her giant forklift – a.k.a. the “exo-suit cargo loader” – faces down the mother monster to protect the orphan Newt. Right before you see this, Ripley utters the line, “Leave her alone, you bitch!” Cameron brought unmistakable echoes of Vasquez and Ripley to last year’s Avatar, casting Weaver as his chain-smoking ecologist and finding a Vasquez look-alike in Michelle Rodriguez as his rebel helicopter pilot.

All of these stories of action heroes involving clandestine loyalties, espionage and empire riff on images of death of self, resurrection, birthrights and lost identities that shuttle between the rootless orphan and the disguised, unknowing lost heir. By adding the mind-bending factor of a woman hero, the Alien films took these images to sci-fi extremes, first with the acid-dripping mother monster and her brood of offspring implanted in the chests of human hosts, then further with the cloning rebirth of Ripley and her own discovery of her various trans-species selves.

Political spy yarns like Salt really run on a parallel track, especially in the past decade. It’s unsurprising that such films aren’t concerned with literal plot credibility, and unsurprising that the subject of a Russian menace returns when it provides that resonant image of “Mother Russia.” You can enjoy Salt for its accomplished brute spectacle alone. Salt also offers performances and ideas about the ways we have gotten lost that will linger.

“Salt” opened nationwide last Friday and is now on multiple local screens. This review appears in the July 29, 2010 print edition of the Syracuse "Eagle" weekly.