Salt the propulsive new thriller from Phillip Noyce (Clear and Present Danger Patriot Games) has been dubbed “Bourne with boobs ” but that label isn’t entirely accurate. In the role of Evelyn Salt a CIA staffer hunted by her own agency after a Russian defector fingers her in a plot to murder Russia’s president Angelina Jolie keeps her two most potent weapons holstered hidden under pantsuits and trenchcoats and the various other components of a super-spy wardrobe that proudly emphasizes function over flash.
But flash is one thing Salt never lacks for. Its breathless cat-and-mouse game hits full-throttle almost from the outset when a former KGB officer named Orlov (Daniel Olbrychski) stumbles into a CIA interrogation room and begins spilling details of a vast conspiracy. Back in the ‘70s hardline elements of the Soviet regime launched an ambitious new front in the Cold War flooding the western world with orphans trained to infiltrate the security complexes of their adopted homelands and wait patiently — decades if necessary — for the order to initiate a series of assassinations intended to trigger a devastating nuclear clash between the superpowers from which the treacherous Reds would emerge triumphant.
The Soviet Union may have long ago collapsed (or did it? Hmmm...) but its army of brainwashed killer orphan spies remains in place and if this crazy Orlov fellow is to be believed they stand poised to reignite the Cold War. It’s a preposterous — even idiotic — scheme but no more so than any of our government’s various harebrained proposals to kill Castro back in the ‘60s. As such the CIA treats it with grave seriousness even the part that that pegs Salt who just happens to be a Russian-born orphan herself as a key player in the conspiracy.
Salt bristles at the accusation but suspecting a set-up she opts to flee rather than face interrogation from her bosses Winter (Liev Schreiber) and Peabody (Chiwetel Ejiofor). A former field agent she’s been confined to a desk job since a clandestine operation in North Korea went south leaving her with a nasty shiner and a rather unremarkable German boyfriend (now her unremarkable German husband). She’s clearly kept up her training during while cubicle-bound however and in a blaze of resourceful thinking and devastating Parkour Fu she fends off a dozen or so agents of questionable competence and takes to the streets where she sets about to clear her name and unravel the Commie orphan conspiracy before the authorities can catch up with her. That is if she isn’t a part of the conspiracy.
The premise which aims to resurrect Cold War tensions and graft them onto a modern-day spy thriller is absurdly clever — and cleverly absurd. But Kurt Wimmer’s screenplay isn’t satisfied with the merely clever and absurd — it must be mind-blowing. Salt is one of those thrillers that ladles out its backstory slowly and in tiny portions every once in a while dropping a revelatory bombshell that effectively blows the lid off everything that happened beforehand. No one is who they seem and every action every gesture no matter how seemingly trivial is imbued with some kind of grand significance. The effect of piling on one insane twist after another has the effect of gradually diluting the narrative. When anything is possible nothing really matters.
But spy thrillers by definition trade in the preposterous and the principal function of the summer blockbuster is to entertain. In that regard Salt more than fulfills its charge. Noyce wisely keeps the story moving at pace that allows little time for asking uncomfortable questions or poking holes in the film’s frail plot. And he has an able partner in the infinitely versatile Jolie who having already exhibited formidable action-hero chops in Wanted and the Tomb Raider films proves remarkably adept at the spy game as well.
It’s well-known that Jolie wasn’t the first choice to star in Salt joining the project only after Tom Cruise dropped out citing the story’s growing similarities to the Mission: Impossible films. But she’s more than just a capable replacement; she’s a welcome upgrade over Cruise not least because she’s over a decade younger (and a few inches taller) than her predecessor. Should Brad Bird require a pinch-hitter for Ethan Hunt he knows where to look.
WHAT IT’S ABOUT?
A perpetually stoned delivery man named Leo unwittingly delivers a package of 10 kilos of high-quality cocaine to the apartment across the hall from its intended recipients who are anxiously awaiting its arrival. It winds up in the hands of a couple of inept crooks Brody and Guch who look at it as manna from God and set about to sell it to Brody’s drug dealing cousin and his accomplice. Meanwhile their neighbor Jesus and his clueless girlfriend embark on a desperate search to find their stash before the unforgiving drug kingpin who sent it to them finds out it’s missing.
WHO’S IN IT?
A game cast led by Donald Faison (who also produced) as the inept delivery man provide the laughs in this Tarantino-esque screwball farce. Faison is quite funny as the stoner Next Day Air worker who sets the dominoes in motion with Mike Epps and Wood Harris expertly playing the "dumb and dumber" hoods who think they’ve found nirvana in the coke-laden mystery package. Also making an impression are Cisco Reyes as the Puerto Rican dealer sweating out the missing box of drugs Yasmin Deliz as his girl and Omari Hardwick as the cousin looking to make the deal. Mos Def steals his brief scenes as a colleague of Leo’s and Debbie Allen is smartly sassy as Leo’s mother/boss. Emilio Rivera rounds out the principal cast as the intense and unforgiving drug lord.
With all these divergent characters focused on one very valuable package director Benny Boom has his work cut out for him but he merges the various lowlifes in and out of focus surprisingly well. Sure they’re all stereotypes but each gets their moments to amuse. This is not brain surgery and Boom knows that milking the silly situation for all the laughs it allows. Next Day Air is better than it has any right to be (if you check your brain at the door).
The film should have stayed with the comedy (ala Pineapple Express) instead of inserting unnecessary grainily-shot violent flashbacks to up the body part count. It’s as if a committee decided there wasn’t enough bloodletting and told the director to insert these pointless scenes. The inevitable final showdown also seems out of place with the light tone set earlier but does provide no end of irony in wrapping up all the loose ends.
For full enjoyment don’t try to make sense of the fact that a seasoned kingpin would send such a large parcel of illegal drugs through a commercial courier service. Obviously there would be no movie if he didn’t but last time we checked no one was using FedEx to ship heroin.
NETFLIX OR MULTIPLEX?
Either way. At a breezy 84 minutes Next Day Air is an agreeable timewaster.
Blart (Kevin James) is a bumbling single dad with a precocious daughter (Raini Rodriguez) who is constantly urging him to get into internet dating and meet a woman. Instead he takes his job as a security officer at the local mall much too seriously to have time for romance. His routine is interrupted when a well-organized robbery empties the mall and among those taken hostage in the bank is a girl he has a secret crush on (Jayma Mays). With the SWAT team unable to take action Blart must use all his wiles to thwart the crooks free the hostages and save the day. James is a talented comic actor especially good in supporting roles like Hitch or his own sitcom The King of Queens. Here he just overdoes it. The pratfalls and cop imitations are funny but generally he’s just straining to make us laugh. And we don’t -- much. Mays as the would-be love interest has little to do other than look frightened most of the time but Rodriguez is quite winning. Also turning up in one-note roles are Stephen Rannazzisi as his rival for Amy’s affections Bobby Cannavale as the SWAT leader and the great Shirley Knight completely wasted as Paul’s mom. Director Steve Carr (Dr. Dolittle Daddy Day Care) has guided comic actors like Eddie Murphy Ice Cube Martin Lawrence and now James with varying degrees of success -- but subtlety is not his strong suit. Basically he turns Blart into an action comedy with the emphasis on over-the-top stunts. Somewhere buried in the non-stop mayhem is a sweet comic performance by James crying to get out but never really does. Ten year olds should eat it all up but parents will be looking at their watches.