Competence is underrated. Last week’s Inception is a wild and visionary thriller, but Christopher Nolan isn’t really an action director; there are too many fight scenes in which we can’t tell who’s where or what’s going on. Salt is a whole other ballgame. It marks a return to form for the great action director Phillip Noyce; thank the cinema gods for someone who knows where to put the camera and how not to let his editors turn everything into unwatchable gibberish. Noyce made the two best Tom Clancy thrillers, Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger, and there’s no nonsense in his style, not an ounce of flab.
The same could be said of Angelina Jolie. She plays Evelyn Salt, a CIA operative accused of being a sleeper agent for the KGB, as if Salt had already seen the movie and were one step ahead of everyone. There’s a car-chase sequence wherein Salt hops from the top of one moving vehicle to another; she seems to know exactly when a hoppable truck is coming up, or maybe she’s just always alert to any advantage. Jolie reportedly did a lot of her own stunts, and the action has a blunt physicality you simply can’t get by leaning too much on CGI or wirework. The success of this movie and Inception is heartening; it may mean that audiences are tired of watching supposed human beings bend physics too far past credibility.
It’s a good thing Noyce and Jolie are dedicated to old-school clarity, because the plot of Salt is the usual convoluted spy stuff. Salt goes on the run to clear her name and also to foil a Russian plot to kill Russia’s president. Salt was in the can long before the recent news about Russian spies hit the headlines, but Russians had made a recent comeback as Hollywood’s bad guys even before this — post-9/11, thrillers need villains who aren’t Middle Eastern (True Lies couldn’t be made the same way today), and we’re in two hot wars with them anyway, so we might as well reactivate the Cold War in movies. It’s comforting, somehow, a throwback to the ‘80s.
Salt is an aesthetically pleasing machine, with fine little witty touches — I enjoyed the bit with Salt repeatedly tasering a barely conscious driver to jolt him into keeping a vehicle going. But a lot of it slips one’s mind as soon as it’s over, and it’s easy to forget that anyone but Jolie is in it. Liev Schreiber and Chiwetel Ejiofor, as fellow CIA guys, spend much of the movie squinting at monitors or coughing on Salt’s dust as she sprints out of their grasp. August Diehl (Inglourious Basterds) makes a brief impression as Salt’s husband, who she originally hooked up with as part of her job but who ended up winning her heart anyway. Salt also has a cute little dog, and I was grateful that the film took time to show her leaving the dog with a little girl for safekeeping. But by the end of the movie, which explicitly leaves the door open for a franchise, I wasn’t concerned with how Salt would pursue her new mission; I worried about whether the doggie missed her all this time and whether Salt would ever see it again. You put a pet in this kind of movie, I’m going to think about stuff like that. Sorry.