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?
Claire is an attractive CIA operative and Ray is an M16 agent who simultaneously leave their Governmental spy activities in the dust to try and profit from a battle between two rival multi-national corporations both trying to launch a new product that will transform the world and make billions. Their goal is to secure the top-secret formula and get a patent before they are outsmarted. While their respective egomaniacal CEOs engage in an unending battle of wills and one-upmanship Claire and Ray start out conning and playing one another in a clever game of industrial espionage that is even more complicated due to their own long-term romantic relationship.
WHO’S IN IT?
Reuniting Closer co-stars Julia Roberts (as Claire) and Clive Owen (as Ray) turns out to be an inspired idea. They turn out to be the perfect pair oozing movie-star charm and electricity in this elaborate con-game that might have been the kind of thing Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant might have made in the '60s (in fact they did in Charade). Roberts with that infamous hairstyle back the way we like it and Owen looking great in sunglasses prove they have what it takes to navigate us through this ultra-complex plot in which no one is sure who they can trust at any given moment. They play it all in high style and the wit just flows as the story skirts back and forth during the period of five years. The supporting cast is well-chosen with juicy roles for Tom Wilkinson and Paul Giamatti (out of their John Adams duds) as the two CEOs going for each other’s throats. Giamatti who sometimes has a tendency to overdo it is especially slimy here and great fun to watch.
Big-star studio movies today rarely take risks and often talk down to the audience but in Duplicity writer/director Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton) has crafted a complicated con-comedy that requires complete attention at all times just to keep up with the dense plot’s twists and turns. It’s the cinematic equivalent of a New York Times crossword puzzle and Gilroy and his top-drawer production team deliver a glossy beautiful-looking film that’s easy on the eyes hitting locations from Dubai to Rome to New York City.
Like any good puzzle it sometimes can be frustrating putting it all together and Gilroy’s habit of taking us back in time and then inching forward gets a little confusing even with the on-screen chyron pointing out where we are at any given moment. Stick with it though and you will be well-rewarded.
A scene near the end where the formula must be found scanned and faxed in a matter of minutes is sweat-inducing edge-of-your-seat moviemaking and it provides the ultimate opportunity for Roberts and Owen to take the “con” to the next level. Another where Roberts uses a thong to try and trick Owen into admitting an affair he never had is also priceless and gets right to the heart of the game-playing.
GO OUT AND GET POPCORN WHEN ...
Never. Stock up during the coming attractions. If you miss a moment of this entertaining romp you might never figure it all out.
Like Mom always said never talk to strangers and never accept a package containing a vintage ventriloquist dummy unless you know who sent it. Sadly young married couple James (Ryan Kwanten) and Lisa (Laura Regan) ignore the latter piece of advice and pay dearly for it. While James is out picking up dinner Lisa makes their pintsized doll feel right at home. When James returns home however he finds his pretty wife has been fatally well doll-handled. Thus begins a full-scale truth mission for new widower James: He seeks to prove the doll's guilt and his innocence in Lisa's homicide as well as learning of the doll’s origins. He heads to Ravens Fair a small town of (apparently) perpetual nightfall and low-hanging fog—a literal and figurative ghost town. With a suspicious cop (Donnie Wahlberg) tracing his every step James finds out about the doll’s er mother Mary Shaw (Judith Roberts) and her fondness for silence. And that this doll is one tough resilient S.O.B.! In a movie about ghosts and such it’s fitting that The Office star John Krasinski’s doppelganger (or long-lost twin) is the lead actor. Up-and-coming actor Kwanten (Flicka) is serviceable and wears the crucial “Where have I seen this dude before?” look quite well but he’s hardly anyone you’ll remember after the movie. And if he has hopes of consistently landing roles beyond the scope of teen-aimed TV dramas and low-budget movies he’ll have to up the liveliness of his performances. Outdoing him are basically all of the remaining G-list actors starting with Saw mainstay Wahlberg an actor who seems oddly cozy atop the bottom of the Hollywood totem pole. As the constantly shaving Det. Lipton Wahlberg at least livens up the proceedings a bit in contrast to his screenmate Kwanten. As Kwanten’s brand new stepmom model-turned-actress Amber Valletta (Hitch) also becomes a piece of the puzzle. The creepiest performances though come from the old timers (veterans Michael Fairman and Joan Heney as a mortician and his tortured wife) the dead (Roberts as the ghostly Mary Shaw in flashbacks) and the seemingly inanimate (that damn doll!). If Saw masterminds Leigh Whannell and James Wan really want to go all progressive-horror on us they might want to try an actual silent film. That would’ve been doubly beneficial here because not only is their latest effort an homage to yesteryear’s similar horror tales (complete with stock-footage scenes and the ancient Universal Studios company logo sequence) but also because the dialogue is atrocious and a silent Silence might have actually worked better. The writing from Wan and Whannell is not without its clever twists and the direction from Wan boasts some genuinely disturbing images even when you expect it—but any number of their Hollywood peers can scare up a few screams here and there. In the end these guys don’t do much more than merely perpetuate the Chucky (from the Child’s Play movies) theory: Dolls can be scary! And Silence is but a cheap stopgap between their annual Saw movies.
Fake shark fins, anyone? The marketing folks at Universal Home Video have been ticking off SoCal beachgoers, plastering lifeguard stands and trash cans with "Jaws" (1975) posters as part of a national ad campaign to plug the flick’s 25th anniversary video and DVD release.
Critics of the ad say that the posters -- with that famous painting of a shark approaching an unsuspecting swimmer -- freak out children and could be misleading to non-English speakers.
Universal has promised to nix the ad campaign if the hullabaloo continues.
Meanwhile, the people at the Los Angeles County Department of Beaches and Harbors, who OK'd the publicity stunt, told the Los Angeles Times that the complaints arose because "everybody isn’t familiar with the movie."
And that’s where we come in.
How many people are really in the know when it comes to the Steven Spielberg-helmed, Oscar-winning blockbuster about a bloodthirsty shark?
Seeking the answer, we swiftly whipped up a list of trivia that we believe any "Jaws" lover could easily answer and headed down to the Santa Monica beach for some casual Q&A with ocean lovers.
And guess what, the County folks were right: Not one person we talked to could answer any of our following questions:
Q: What community does the story of "Jaws" take place in? Real answer: Amity Island. Best answer from the beach: "Well, I know it takes place by the beach." -- Mary Ann, sunbather from North Hollywood. Q: Who wrote the book that the movie was based on? Real answer: Peter Benchley. Best answer: "I don’t know, I don’t really read." -- Eddie, local college student on summer break.
Q: What actor played the police chief? Real answer: Roy Scheider Best answer: "How am I supposed to remember?" -- Debbie, housewife from Arizona.
Q: Which of the main characters gets eaten? Real answer: Quint (played by Robert Shaw). Best answer: "It’s one of the three characters who went out on a boat at the end." -- Lisa, vacationer from the United Kingdom.
Q: What Jaws movie did Mario Van Peebles appear in? Real answer: "Jaws: The Revenge:" (1987). He played Jake. Best answer: "Who?!" -- Jim, retiree living in Santa Monica.
Q: What Jaws movie did Michael Caine appear in? Real answer: "Jaws: The Revenge" (1987). He played Hoagie. Best answer: "Er, the first one?" -- Debbie, housewife from Arizona.
Q: In which Jaws movie is a shark electrically barbecued? Real answer: "Jaws 2" (1978). Best answer: "Hold on, how many ‘Jaws’ were there?" -- again, Debbie, housewife from Arizona.
Q: Which "Jaws" flick features the star of "Diggstown"? Real answer: Lou Gossett Jr., in "Jaws 3D." Best answer: "Of what?!"-- Jim, retiree living in Santa Monica.
Q: Which of these flicks is a Jaws knock-off: a) "Mako: Jaws of Death" b) "Grizzly" c) "Tentacles" d) "Deep Blue Sea" Answer: All of the above. Best answer: "'Deep Blue Sea.' That one has sharks in it. I’ve seen that one." -- Eddie, local college student on summer break.
But that’s not all. To put the whole shark scare to rest, we talked to Capt. Mickey Gallagher of the Los Angeles County Fire Department Lifeguard Operations. Instead of shark movie posters, Gallagher says people should really be more concerned about watching their kids, and jellyfish, when they come to the beach.
But Gallagher couldn’t answer any of our "Jaws" trivia questions, either.