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.
Charles Bronson may have passed away but the spirit of his Death Wish films lives on -- albeit in an absurdly twisted fashion -- in F. Gary Gray’s (The Italian Job Be Cool) gleefully over-the-top revenge thriller Law Abiding Citizen.
Taking a welcome break from his recent run of lame chick flicks Gerard Butler (300 RocknRolla) stars as Clyde Shelton a loving husband and father whose placid suburban existence is upended when a couple of mangy meth monsters burst into his home. Not content to merely burglarize the place they proceed to butcher Clyde’s wife and daughter as he lies in a heap on the floor periodically losing consciousness after being stabbed several times.
The killers are soon apprehended and a grieving Clyde who somehow managed to survive the whole ordeal eagerly awaits swift retribution from the justice system. Hoping for the grim solace that only the death penalty can provide he places his faith in Nick Rice (Oscar winner Jamie Foxx) the hotshot district attorney charged with prosecuting the case to do the right thing and see to it that the two killers fry.
Nick however has other plans. Seeing the case as anything but open-and-shut and fearful that a not-guilty verdict in such a high-profile trial could derail his ambitious career plans (he sees himself as a Giuliani in the making) he opts to strike a plea deal: One man gets a death sentence while the other gets a mere 10 years in return for testifying against his cohort.
Chastened by the unseemly bargain Clyde takes matters into his own hands delivering his own uniquely painful brand of vigilante justice to the sinister men who destroyed his family. But he doesn’t stop there not by a longshot. His grudge extends much much further -- to the very heart of the justice system itself -- and he intends to bring the entire corrupt apparatus down even if he has to do it while locked up inside a jail cell. Which is where he ends up after police nab him for personally imposing the death penalty on the convicted killers.
Indeed Clyde proves to be something of a savant when it comes to killing people in creative cinematic ways employing exploding cell phones remote-control machine guns and other methods to take out the various judges attorneys and politicians on his hit list. Most amazingly he orchestrates all of this mayhem from behind bars. Seriously this guy’s flair for novelty violence makes the Joker’s antics in The Dark Knight seem amateurish by comparison.
The task of putting an end to all of Clyde’s mayhem naturally falls on Nick. And this is where Law Abiding Citizen’s fatal flaw emerges. Whereas Gray Butler and virtually everyone else seem to enthusiastically embrace the utter ridiculousness of it all Foxx plays it determinedly straight as if he’s the only one in the movie who isn’t in on the joke. Watching his performance it’s almost as if he’s making a different film than everyone else.
The right way for Law Abiding Citizen to end is for Foxx to administer an appropriately ironic death to Butler’s character utter something like “I rest my case ” and wink at the camera as he makes his exit. (Click here to read our exclusive interview with Foxx.)
I won’t give any spoilers away but suffice it to say this is NOT how the movie ends.
WHAT IT’S ABOUT?
The uber-anticipated sequel Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen picks up shortly after the events of the blockbuster first film. With evil Megatron’s carcass buried at the bottom of the ocean Optimus Prime and his Autobot comrades working together with an elite group of human soldiers are now focused on hunting the remaining Decepticons scattered across the globe. Sam Witwicky hero of the 2007 movie is busy preparing for his first year at college while his unlikely girlfriend Mikaela Barnes stays behind to tend to her father’s auto-repair shop. Little do they know however that back on Cybertron a Decepticon elder known as “The Fallen” is hatching a scheme to invade Earth where hidden somewhere on the planet is the last known source of energon the life-blood of all Transformers. If he succeeds the devastation left in his wake will no doubt spell the end of the human race. With the fate of Earth hanging in the balance Sam and Mikaela must once again have to team up with Optimus and the Autobots to defeat this powerful new foe.
WHO’S IN IT?
All the major human players from the first Transformers film are back for the sequel including Shia LaBeouf Megan Fox Tyrese Gibson Josh Duhamel and John Turturro. Newcomers include Ramon Rodriguez who plays Sam’s conspiracy-obsessed college roommate Leo and The Office’s Rainn Wilson who enjoys a notable cameo as a pompous physics professor.
Of course the actors merely serve as background filler for the real stars of the show: those titular talking-alien robots. And director Michael Bay fills up the screen with enough mechanical eye candy to dazzle even the most skeptical gearhead. Returning characters include Optimus Prime Bumblebee Ratchet Ironhide Barricade Jazz (don’t act surprised) Starscream Frenzy and Megatron (again don’t act surprised).
Several new Autobots are introduced to the mix: Mudflap and Skids a pair of jive-talking ceaselessly annoying hatchbacks; Jolt a Chevy Volt; Sideswipe a silver Corvette; and Jetfire an elderly Decepticon turncoat who walks with a cane speaks with an English accent and transforms into an SR-71 Blackbird. Additions to Decepticon side include: The Fallen who we learn is the Decepticons’ real head honcho (consider him the Emperor Palpatine to Megatron’s Darth Vader); Soundwave a communications specialist who sinks his tentacles into a satellite and spies on us from above; Ravage a panther-like creature; Wheelie a radio-controlled truck who talks like Joe Pesci; “the Doctor ” a sort of mad scientist who speaks with a German accent (naturally); and the Constructicons a group of construction vehicles that fuse together to form a massive four-legged beast.
No director does over-the-top explosion-laded action better than Michael Bay and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen features several staggering set pieces. The CGI work on this film makes the last one look like it was designed on a Commodore 64.
Any scene in which people talk — and several of the ones in which robots talk too. Just as the action and visual effects are beefed up for the sequel the bad jokes and cringe-worthy dialogue are as well. Highlights include two dogs humping John Turturro in a thong a robot humping Megan Fox’s leg a sequence involving Sam’s stoned mom and a glimpse of a very large pair of testicles on one very large Decepticon. The latter will likely go down as the “nipples-on-the-Batsuit” moment for the Transformers franchise.
The show-stopping climax set in the Egyptian desert is one extended riotous battle royale packed with so much robot-on-robot action you’ll feel overwhelmed at times.
NETFLIX OR MULTIPLEX?
This big-budget spectacle begs to be seen at the multiplex — IMAX if possible. Just bring a pair of earplugs for the dialogue sequences. You might want to bring some Dramamine as well as Mr. Bay went a little overboard with his trademark circling-camera sequences this time around.
The box office took its typical post-Thanksgiving weekend plunge. Die Another Day showed the best signs of life, regaining first place with a modest $13 million in ticket sales.
Analyze That opened without mobs of moviegoers, placing second with $11.3 million.
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets tumbled from first to third place with $10 million.
Empire arrived to an encouraging $6.3 million.
Treasure Planet finished fifth with a lean $5.7 million.
The weekend's biggest success story was Columbia and Intermedia Films' platform release of Spike Jonze's unconventional comedy Adaptation. In its opening weekend at 7 theaters, Adaptation grossed a sizzling $400,000, averaging $57,143 per theater. (For details and comments by Columbia distribution president Rory Bruer please see OTHER OPENINGS below.)
Key films grossed $77.4 million, down nearly 6 percent from this weekend last year when they did $82.2 million.
THE TOP TEN
(NOTE: Today's percentage variations are calculated against grosses for the three day Friday-Sunday portion of the five day Thanksgiving holiday period.)
MGM and United Artists' PG-13 rated James Bond thriller Die Another Day recaptured first place from Harry Potter in its third week with an ESTIMATED $13.0 million (-58%) at 3,347 theaters (+23 theaters; $3,884 per theater). Its cume is approximately $120.4 million, heading for $165-175 million in domestic theaters.
Directed by Lee Tamahori and produced by Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli, it stars Pierce Brosnan and Halle Berry.
The last Bond film, The World Is Not Enough, opened Nov. 19-21, 1999 to $35.52 million and went on to gross $126.9 million in domestic theaters and $225.1 million in international theaters for a worldwide total of $352 million.
"It's amazing. Three weeks (in first place) in a row. We haven't had that in a very long time," MGM senior vice president, publicity Eric Kops said Sunday morning.
Warner Bros. and Village Roadshow Pictures and NPV Entertainment's R rated comedy sequel Analyze That kicked off quietly in second place to an ESTIMATED $11.3 million at 2,635 theaters ($4,288 per theater).
Directed by Harold Ramis, it stars Robert De Niro, Billy Crystal and Lisa Kudrow.
Analyze's average per theater was the highest for any film playing in over 1,000 theaters this weekend.
The series' original film, Analyze This, opened to $18.4 million the weekend of Mar. 5-7, 1999 at 2,518 theaters ($7,301 per theater). It wound up grossing $106.7 million in domestic theaters.
"Our exits are good. People had a lot of laughs," Warner Bros. Distribution president Dan Fellman said Sunday morning. "The picture plays very well. It's a good audience pleaser. And we're hoping that we will be able to continue that and play well through the holidays."
Warner Bros.' PG rated sequel Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets slid two pegs to third place in its fourth week with a calm ESTIMATED $10.02 million (-69%) at 3,387 theaters (-295 theaters; $2,958 per theater). Its cume is approximately $213.9 million.
Directed by Chris Columbus, it stars Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson.
"I think we're heading for $275 million (in domestic theaters)," Warner Bros.' Dan Fellman said.
Focusing on the big drops seen across the board this weekend versus last weekend, Fellman pointed out, "Last Friday night is the biggest day of the year (for moviegoing). People are off (starting) Wednesday afternoon. You have Thanksgiving on Thursday. Families are busy. Friday is like a Saturday because nobody works Thursday. Movies are a little soft on Thursday and them BOOM! That's the biggest day (of the holiday weekend). It's bigger than Saturday. So you have this huge gross on Friday. The following week you're coming in off of a work day on Friday."
Arenas Entertainment and Universal's R rated urban action film Empire arrived in fourth place to a solid ESTIMATED $6.27 million at 867 theaters ($7,235 per theater).
Written and directed by Franc Reyes, it stars John Leguizamo, Peter Sarsgaard and Denise Richards.
"We're very excited because this is a film that we acquired for around $650,000," Universal distribution president Nikki Rocco said Sunday morning. "It's the first venture with our partners the Arenas Group. We acquired the film for them. This fantastic opening is indicative of how we targeted the release date without attempting to compete with the high profile films (in the marketplace).
"867 playdates is not the norm for an urban action film, but we were very selective in how we distributed the film. We didn't attempt to compete with the more mainstream fare this weekend and that's evidenced by the choice of the (release) date and the marketing campaign."
Arenas, Rocco explained, "chose Empire as its first release because it's a commercial genre film. They deserve the credit for recognizing the talent of Franc Reyes, who directed and wrote Empire. The Arenas partnership is one that we plan to cultivate for a long time to come. There are plans to release all different kinds of films, which we're very excited about, particularly because they're going to showcase Latino talent for a Latino audience. They've assisted us in marketing this film because they're experts in marketing to the Latino audience. This is a hugely successful launch and I think strategically the results are exceptional."
Rocco also applauded Leguizamo's efforts to promote Empire, noting that he "worked very hard on the film and supported the film tremendously. He literally did interviews (with) every radio, TV and print outlet in every major Hispanic market. I think the results speak for themselves."
Buena Vista/Disney's PG rated animated sci-fi adventure Treasure Planet dropped one orbit to fifth place in its second week with a slow ESTIMATED $5.7 million (-53%) at 3,227 theaters (theater count unchanged; $1,754 per theater). Its cume is approximately $23.8 million.
Directed by John Musker & Ron Clements, its screenplay is by Ron Clements & John Musker.
Buena Vista/Disney's G rated comedy sequel Santa Clause 2 fell three rungs to sixth place in its sixth week, with a still funny ESTIMATED $5.4 million (-55%) at 2,356 theaters (-170 theaters; $2,296 per theater). Its cume is approximately $120.2 million, heading for $140 million in domestic theaters.
Directed by Michael Lembeck, it stars Tim Allen.
Columbia's PG-13 rated animated musical Adam Sandler's 8 Crazy Nights dropped two slots to seventh place in its second week with a less funny ESTIMATED $5.2 million (-45%) at 2,503 theaters (theater count unchanged; $2,078 per theater). Its cume is approximately $20.4 million.
Directed by Seth Kearsley, it was produced by Adam Sandler, Jack Giarraputo and Allen Covert.
New Line Cinema's R rated comedy sequel Friday After Next slid two slots to eighth place in its third week with a slow ESTIMATED $2.8 million (-62%) at 1,450 theaters (-171 theaters; $1,931 per theater). Its cume is approximately $29.1 million.
Directed by Marcus Raboy, it stars Ice Cube and Mike Epps.
Universal and Imagine Entertainment's R rated drama 8 Mile fell one peg to ninth place in its fifth week with an okay ESTIMATED $2.61 million (-55%) at 2,015 theaters (-483 theaters; $1,295 per theater). Its cume is approximately $111.2 million, heading for $125 million.
Directed by Curtis Hanson and produced by Brian Grazer, it stars Eminem, Kim Basinger, Brittany Murphy and Mekhi Phifer.
Rounding out the Top Ten was DreamWorks' PG-13 rated horror thriller The Ring, down one rung in its eighth week with an uneventful ESTIMATED $2.5 million (-52%) at 1,642 theaters (-270 theaters; $1,537 per theater). Its cume is approximately $123.3 million, heading for $130 million.
Directed by Gore Verbinski, it stars Naomi Watts, Martin Henderson and Brian Cox.
This weekend also saw the arrival of Dimension Films' R rated sci-fi thriller Equilibrium to a soft ESTIMATED $0.53 million at 301 theaters ($1,754 per theater).
Written and directed by Kurt Wimmer, it stars Christian Bale, Emily Watson, Taye Diggs and Angus MacFadyen.
Columbia and Intermedia Films' R rated unconventional comedy Adaptation kicked off to a spectacular ESTIMATED $0.4 million at 7 theaters ($57,143 per theater) -- three in New York, three in Los Angeles and one in Toronto.
Directed by Spike Jonze, it stars Nicolas Cage, Meryl Streep and Chris Cooper.
"It's terrific," Columbia distribution president Rory Bruer said Sunday morning. "The reviews are so good. We had near sell-out business everywhere. The Grove (multiplex in L.A.) was wild this weekend. Just jam-packed -- not a seat to be had. And they really seemed to like the picture a lot."
Looking ahead, Bruer said, "On Dec. 20 we'll broaden to some of the top cities, probably somewhere around 100 locations and then broaden some more on Jan. 10 to around 600 (theaters).
Revolution Studios and Columbia Pictures held about 875 well attended sneak previews Saturday of their PG-13 rated romantic comedy Maid in Manhattan.
Directed by Wayne Wang, Maid stars Jennifer Lopez and Ralph Fiennes.
"We had these great sneaks," Columbia's Rory Bruer said. "We had 875 theaters, so it was about double of what we had last week (for Friday's sneaks). They were 95 percent full. Many were sold out. It just seems to be such a terrific romantic comedy for the season. It feels really good. It opens Friday (Dec. 13) at around 2,600 theaters."
Touchstone Pictures held sneak previews Friday night of its PG-13 rated comedy The Hot Chick. No details were available from Disney Sunday morning.
Directed by Tom Brady, it stars Rob Schneider.
Chick opens wide this Friday (Dec. 13).
On the expansion front this weekend Samuel Goldwyn Films' R rated drama El Crimen del Padre Amaro went wider in is fourth week to a still hopeful ESTIMATED $0.4 million at 122 theaters (+14 theaters; $3,230 per theater). Its cume is approximately $3.1 million.
Directed by Carlos Carrera, it stars Gael Garcia Bernal and is the official Mexican entry in this year's best foreign language film Oscar race.
Miramax's R rated drama Ararat widened in its fourth week with a dull ESTIMATED $0.14 million at 42 theaters (+9 theaters; $3,405 per theater). Its cume is approximately $1.2 million.
Written and directed by Atom Egoyan, it stars David Alpay, Charles Aznavour, Eric Bogosian, Brent Carver and Marie-Josee Croze.
United Artists' R rated drama Personal Velocity, released via MGM, added theaters in its third week with a still encouraging ESTIMATED $92,000 at 20 theaters (+15 theaters; $4,595 per theater). Its cume is approximately $0.2 million.
Directed by Rebecca Miller, it stars Kyra Sedgwick, Parker Posey and Fairuza Balk. Velocity won the Grand Jury Prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival.
Key films -- those grossing more than $500,000 -- took in approximately $77.4 million this weekend, down about 5.83 percent from last year when they totaled $82.19 million.
Comparisons to last weekend of this year are not valid because last weekend was a holiday weekend.
Last year, Warner Bros.' opening week of Ocean's Eleven was first with $38.11 million at 3,075 theaters ($12,393 per theater); and Warner Bros.' fourth week of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone was second with $14.74 million at 3,672 theaters ($4,014 per theater). The top two films one year ago grossed $52.8 million. This year, the top two films grossed an ESTIMATED $24.3 million.