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.
A Mighty Heart is based on a tragedy of which we all know the gruesome outcome: the capture and eventual murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl (Dan Futterman) whose execution footage was widely seen on the Internet. On Jan. 23 2002 in Karachi Pakistan Danny thought he was heading to an interview regarding “Shoe Bomber” Richard Reid and his pregnant wife Mariane (Angelina Jolie) herself a journalist thought the two of them were going to have dinner afterwards; both of them were wrong. Danny gets tricked by a cab driver and later his interviewee ending up in the hands of his kidnappers and eventual murderers. For the next several weeks Mariane—with help from Danny’s associate (Archie Panjabi); a Karashi police detective (Irrfan Khan); an American security agent (Will Patton); and Danny’s Wall Street Journal superior (Denis O'Hare) and colleague (Gary Wilmes)—embarks on her own frantic investigation tracking any and all leads retracing steps and most importantly remaining optimistic. Her efforts as we now know were in vain but her spirit was never broken. In fact Mariane winds up with the ultimate keepsake of her slain husband: their son Adam to whom she dedicates her memoir of the tragedy entitled A Mighty Heart. Angelina Jolie is the unequivocal heart of A Mighty Heart both on screen and off. On screen her fame is almost too large for small fare like this but this particular movie which boasts the most compelling story imaginable would be the least compelling movie imaginable without her performance. Off screen even Mariane Pearl’s highly regarded memoir would probably not have been enough to greenlight the big-screen version without a Jolie-sized endorsement. It’s easy to forget that Jolie is an actress before a paprazzi target but this movie refreshes our memory. She may not necessarily deserve the Oscar but the writing is on the wall what with the Best Actress Trifecta: played-down looks a real-life character and a foreign accent. There’s also a gut-wrenching scene—you can imagine the point in the story at which it occurs—which might as well have had “Future Oscar Reel” scrolling across the bottom. The other actors are rendered almost nonexistent. Futterman who wrote the Capote screenplay is an eerily perfect match for Pearl all the way down to his first name but barely appears in the movie. Veteran actor Patton meanwhile must have been a dead-on physical match for his real-life character because his performance consistently seems on a different wavelength as compared to the others. The two prominent foreign actors Panjabi (Bend It Like Beckham) and Khan (The Namesake) greatly outperform Patton in this case but luckily everyone is given a free pass aboard the Jolie Train. British director Michael Winterbottom’s A Mighty Heart is an Angelina Jolie away from being totally insignificant. Granted it’s Mariane Pearl’s story to tell and Jolie is meant to have the spotlight shining solely and brightly on her but where Winterbottom (24 Hour Party People) intended for the movie to seem visceral it is actually suspenseless. Recent fact-for-fact successes United 93 and Zodiac two stylistically different works of nonfiction excelled because their directors managed to squeeze out suspense from stories whose endings we already knew. In Heart Winterbottom seems more concerned with getting the facts and cinematography right than taking us inside Mariane Pearl’s head or plight and thus the movie could've actually benefited from some embellishment here and there. After the success of The Road to Guantanamo Winterbottom is still deep in docudrama mode but this isn’t a documentary and it’s not particularly dramatic. For the most part the talented director’s Heart is just in the wrong place.