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.
The God of Legion secular Hollywood’s latest Biblically-inspired action flick is old-school an angry spiteful Almighty with a penchant for Old Testament theatrics. Fed up with humanity’s decadent warmongering ways He’s decided to pull the plug on the whole crazy experiment and start over from scratch.
Fortunately for us the God of Legion is also a rather lazy fellow. Instead of doing the apocalyptic work himself and wiping us out with a giant flood which worked perfectly well last time He opts to delegate the task to His army of angels — a questionable strategy that starts to fall apart when the archangel charged with leading the planned extermination Michael (Paul Bettany) refuses to comply.
Michael who unlike his boss still harbors affection for our sorry species abandons his post and descends to earth where inside the swollen belly of Charlie (Adrianne Palicki) an unwed mother-to-be working as a waitress in an out-of-the-way diner sits humanity’s lone hope for survival. Why is this particular baby so important? Is it the one destined to lead us to victory over Skynet? Heaven knows — Legion reveals little details its script devoid of actual scripture. What is clear is that God’s celestial hitmen want the kid whacked before it’s born.
But Michael won’t let humanity fall without a fight. Armed with a Waco-sized arsenal of assault weapons he hunkers down with the diner’s patrons a largely superfluous collection of thinly-sketched caricatures from various demographic groups led by Dennis Quaid as the diner’s grizzled owner Tyrese Gibson as a hip-hop hustler and Lucas Black as a simple-minded country boy.
Together they mount a heroic final stand against hordes of angels who’ve taken possession of “weak-willed” humans turning kindly old grandmas and mild-mannered ice cream vendors into snarling ravenous foul-mouthed beasts. They descend upon the ramshackle diner in a series of full-frontal assaults commanded by the archangel Gabriel (Kevin Durand) the George Pickett of End of Days generals.
Beneath its superficial religious facade Legion is really just a run-of-the-mill zombie flick a Biblical I Am Legend. Bettany an actor accustomed to smaller dramatic roles in films like A Beautiful Mind and The Da Vinci Code looks perfectly at ease in his first major action role wielding machine guns and bowie knives with equal aplomb. Conversely first-time director Scott Stewart a former visual effects artist does little to prove himself worthy of such a promotion serving up some impressive CGI work but not much else worthy of note.
A billionaire TV producer (Robert Mammone) has a great idea for a reality show that he wants to put on the Internet and his goal is to beat the 40 million Super Bowl audience. He has compiled a crack team of young hip and immoral tech geeks directed by Goldman (Rick Hoffman) and puts cameras throughout a remote island where former prisoners are going to kill each other while audiences watch after shelling out the pay-per-view fee. The location is done on a remote secret island and the death row prisoners are bought from prisons around the world with the promise that the survivor gets to walk free. Among the contestants are a rogue Aussie named McStarley (Vinnie Jones) a martial arts expert (Masa Yamaguchi) a husband-and-wife team (Manu Bennett and Dasi Ruz) a monstrous killer who doesn't do much more than grunt (Nathan Jones) and others known only as The Italian The German and other monikers quickly forgotten. Enter the sole American Jack Conrad (Steve Austin) who's in a South American prison for some obscure reason and is recognized on TV by his wife (Madeleine West) who tries to save him. However it looks like Conrad is pretty good at helping himself. Don't expect the acting to be much more evolved than what could be seen among the World Wrestling Entertainment superstars especially since many of them were plucked from the ring to star in this morality tale. But Austin (who had in a strong cameo in Adam Sandler's Longest Yard) proves he has a sense of humor as well as strength. Vinnie Jones is ridiculously over-the-top as the Aussie who's the hand-picked winner of this game shown setting up alliances Survivor style only to turn on them later. The supporting cast are refreshingly entertaining but one-note caricatures both in the contest and running the contest. It's obvious that they aren't going to be around long but the actors do milk their tiny roles for every bit of attention they can get. Rick Hoffman as the brilliant camera mastermind of the project is both whiny sniveling and mean-spirited so when he joins some of the rest of the crew and suddenly develops a backbone and a conscience he ends up stealing the movie with his acerbic humor. But it's the understated American hero Conrad who holds a mirror up to the people who like to watch this stuff. Director Scott Wiper who co-wrote this story has also acted in similar movies like this (A Better Way to Die). It’s obvious he knows what he’s doing with The Condemned and develops a sense of voyeuristic angst like those of us who can't keep our eyes off a train wreck. Like the darkly subversive Belgian film Man Bites Dog the camera crew remains safely distant and remote until the reality directly involves them. Then the crew wonders "What the hell are we doing?" while the audience might be thinking "What the hell are we watching?" Much like Series 7: The Contenders Rollerball and other movies which show a dark and bloody near future this kind of reality doesn't seem too far away and maybe proves that movies which provide this type of gladiator spectacle target a certain segment of the human population who need to blow off steam.
That's how Ali came out in his Christmas Day bout at the box office.
The Michael Mann-directed biography overcame mixed reviews to punch up $10.2 million on its first day in release. That was not enough to knock out reigning champ The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, which earned $11.4 million at 1,000 more theaters, but Ali did break the record for a Dec. 25 opening.
The mawkish Patch Adams held the previous record, opening on Christmas Day in 1998 with $8 million, on its way to a healthy $135 million.
Ali, dropping to $5.8 million on Wednesday, now has $16 million.
The future of the $105 million-plus Ali rests predominately on the beefed-up shoulders of a former Fresh Prince of Bel Air and whether audiences accept him as Muhammad Ali. Critics failed to enthusiastically embrace Will Smith's portrayal of arguably one of the most famous of all sports icons, although he did receive a Golden Globe nomination for his noble but flawed attempt to float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.
Still, Ali should serve as a strong springboard for Smith to free himself of kicking alien butt and explore other dramatic possibilities.
With the legendary fights against Sonny Liston and George Foreman serving as bookends, Ali tries to be more than the typical recount of a real-life athlete's path to glory. Mann employs Ali's life as a means to explore racial and religious tension in the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s, with the boxer's conversion to Islam given as much thought and detail as his efforts to gain and defend his heavyweight title.
Other recent race-driven sports biographies have gone the distance at the box office, including a pair of Denzel Washington offerings, The Hurricane ($50.6 million) and Remember the Titans ($115.6 million).
Ali, and the upcoming Men In Black 2, will allow Smith to regain his position as one of Hollywood's sure things. Smith became Mr. July Fourth when Independence Day and Men In Black opened huge in the summers of 1996 and 1997, respectively. Wild Wild West, another July Fourth holiday opening, tarnished Smith's reputation when the witless western failed to make more than $113.8 million.
Last year's The Legend of Bagger Vance, marking Smith's first dramatic endeavor since 1993's Six Degrees of Separation, could not muster more than $30.6 million.
Ali delivered a bruising blow to Kate & Leopold, pairing workaholic Meg Ryan with 19th-century blueblood Hugh Jackman. Miramax yanked the slow and corny time-traveling romantic comedy from Dec. 21 to avoid getting lost amid a slew of new releases. The ploy didn't work as well as expected, given that Kate & Leopold opened Dec. 25 with a quiet $2.5 million and has $5.1 million through Wednesday.
Kate & Leopold finds itself in the unique position of being the only mainstream offering for couples in the mood for love. Yet Ryan and Jackman face stiff competition for the adult audience in the form of Ali, the sturdy Ocean's Eleven, the waning Vanilla Sky, and such limited release offerings as A Beautiful Mind, The Royal Tenenbaums and Amelie.
Plus, even though she is very much in her element, Ryan looks extremely tired and bored with the notion of being wooed by a man from another time. Maybe she knew that hopping from one century to another didn't work not once, but twice, this year with Just Visiting and Black Knight. That's tough, because Ryan's not enjoyed a hit since 1998's You've Got Mail. Is it time for Ryan to call in a favor from Tom Hanks?
The jury is still out on Jackman, who shot to fame in 2000 as Wolverine in X-Men. He failed to sizzle opposite Ashley Judd in Someone Like You, which made just $27.3 million, and he got cuaght with his pants down in the repugnant cyberthriller Swordfish, which went offline at $69.7 million. Still, Jackman is Kate & Leopold's sole saving grace. The very personalization of charm and gallantry, Jackman could set many hearts on fires as the nobleman inadvertently removed from the New York City of his day.
Little doubt lingers now about the risk New Line took in sending director Peter Jackson off to New Zealand in 1999 with $270 million to film all three of The Lord of the Rings books back to back. Jackson's masterful adaptation of the first book, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, won over J.R.R. Tolkien fans and those completely unfamiliar with the quest to save for Middle-earth.
After debuting Wednesday, Dec. 18, with $18.1 million, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring seized the mantle as the biggest December weekend opening with its $47.2 million haul. The film broke the $100 million on Wednesday, and stands tall with $107.9 million in company coffers.
Jackson's epic looks set to dominate the box office for weeks to come, with $150 a certainty by the end of the year. Unlike Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring can count on the awards season to keep audiences spellbound by the adventures of Frodo Baggins.
Not that a certain apprentice wizard should worry. Harry Potter lost much of its magic this Christmas weekend--conjuring up an OK $10.7 million from Friday through Tuesday--but it now ranks as the year's top earner. Harry Potter's $271.1 million puts it slightly ahead of Shrek's $267.6 million, with $300 million a strong possibility.
Monsters, Inc. continues to close in on Shrek. The Disney/Pixar animated yarn scared up $5.6 million from Friday through Tuesday, with its total now at $227.9 million through Wednesday. Toy Story 2, released in 1999, remains the best grosser of all Disney/Pixar collaborations at $245.8 million.
Harry Potter and Monsters, Inc. no doubt lost some plenty of toddlers--and their parents--to the animated Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius. Based on its name recognition, the Nickelodeon TV spin-off rocketed to a $13.8 million opening and has $22.5 million through Wednesday. That's well below the $27.3 million and $22.7 million openings of, respectively, The Rugrats Movie and Rugrats in Paris. But the boy genius looks like he has the smarts to zoom off with some serious cash.
Director Steven Soderbergh enjoyed his third consecutive $100 million smash Tuesday when Ocean's Eleven shot past $102 million in swag. The cool remake of the Rat Pack comic crime caper cashed in $106.6 million through Wednesday. Ocean's Eleven looks to head into 2002 and surpass Soderbergh's Erin Brockovich ($125.5 million) and Traffic ($124.1 million) at the box office.
Tom Cruise can't look forward to a good start to the New Year. As expected, Cruise's Vanilla Sky lost more than half its audience in its second weekend, dropping from $25 million to $12 million. Director Cameron Crowe's remake of the Spanish psychological thriller Abre los ojos (Open Your Eyes) has $52.5 million through Wednesday, almost equal to what Cruise's Eyes Wide Shut made in 1999. Lousy reviews and word of mouth will likely to thwart any chance of Vanilla Sky becoming Cruise's ninth film to top $100 million.
How High, with rappers Redman and Method Man as the 21st-century answer to Cheech & Chong, swiped away much of the audience from the spoof Not Another Teen Movie. How High, playing at a modest 1,266 theaters, smoked up $7.1 million in its opening weekend and has $11.2 million through Wednesday.
Not Another Teen Movie collapsed in its second weekend, dropping from $12.6 million to $5.2 million. Its total through Tuesday is $23.3 million.
The Majestic marked Jim Carrey's second consecutive dramatic flop, following 1999's Man on the Moon. Perhaps, post-Sept. 11, audiences are more interested in America engaging the enemy--hence the jingoistic Behind Enemy Lines' $45.1 million through Tuesday--than watching a community come to terms with the sacrifices required to win a war.
The Majestic opened with $4.9 million, and has $7.3 million through Tuesday, a low for Carrey since making a splash with Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. Man on the Moon, with Carrey as the late comedian Andy Kaufman, opened with $7.5 million on its way to $34.5 million.
Nobody put Joe Somebody on their must-see list. The workplace comedy, with Tim Allen battling bullying colleague Patrick Warburton, managed a terrible $3.5 million opening and has $5.3 million through Tuesday. That ranks as Allen's worst opening, well behind the $6 million opening that For Richer or Poorer cobbled together in December 1997. Little wonder Allen is suiting up for The Santa Clause 2.
In limited release, director Ron Howard's A Beautiful Mind has $4.2 million through Wednesday. Excellent reviews, and a slew of Golden Globe nominations, will help this biography of mathematical genius John Forbes Nash Jr. to place high in the Top 10 when it expands Jan. 4. The same should apply to The Royal Tenenbaums when it goes wider this weekend. Director Wes Anderson's third quirky comedy, with Gene Hackman, amassed a regal $1.9 million from Friday through Tuesday at just 40 theaters, with its total at $2.4 million.
Director Lasse Hallstrom's bleak adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Shipping News opened to a so-so $318,000 at 186 theaters. Perhaps this is a sign that few may want a dose of the News when it expands Jan. 4.
The final spate of Oscar contenders arrive in a limited number of theaters this week, including Ridley Scott's Black Hawk Down; Robert Altman's Gosford Park; I Am Sam, with Sean Penn; Monster's Ball, with Billy Bob Thornton; and Charlotte Gray, starring the hardest working new mother in Hollywood, Cate Blanchett.