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.
Although most Holocaust-themed works present the Jews as victims this true story shows there were small bands who did manage to fight back no matter how difficult the challenge. Starting near the beginning of World War II the film focuses on three Jewish brothers who lead a small but effective resistance against the surging Nazi presence in the forests of Belarussia. Eldest brother Tuvia Bielski (Daniel Craig) returns home to find most of his family murdered. His only surviving siblings are his wild quick-tempered brother Zus (Liev Schreiber) prone to shoot first and ask questions later and his youngest brother Asael (Jamie Bell) whose gentle nature allows to him to act as a buffer between his two older siblings. Crux of the film is the conflict between Zus’ quest for revenge at any cost and Tuvia’s more measured desire to save lives. As they round up more and more Jewish outcasts the Bielskis form a community deep in the woods. But soon Tuvia must rise to the occasion and lead the 1 200 strong group deeper into hiding in order to survive the winter and the lurking Nazi threat. Daniel Craig gets back to his acting roots after two high-profile outings as 007. He’s strong resilient and complex as a man with a criminal past whose mettle is tested when he chooses to become an advocate for life over the prospect of turning into a killing machine. Schreiber is superb as well as the toughest of the brothers -- at least on the outside. His primal urge to survive at all costs by using whatever preemptive force is necessary is apparent throughout his well-detailed portrayal. And finally Bell who more than holds his own as the most innocent of the bunch and the one with the most to learn. Alexa Davalos Iben Hjejle and Mia Wasikowska add needed warmth and emotion as the three very different women or “forest wives ” with whom the brothers romantically bond during their years in hiding. Stand out in the enormous meticulously chosen cast is Mark Feuerstein as an intellectual and Viktor Panchenko as Isyyanov the leader of the People’s Army. Edward Zwick is known for intelligent historically based films like Glory The Last Samurai and Blood Diamond. Defiance follows suit shot on a rather large scale with lots of impressive action sequences buffering an intimate story. Zwick’s co-writer Clayton Frohman stumbled upon the Bielskis’ story while reading a newspaper obituary on one of them. Armed with exhaustive research and an unerring eye for authenticity the director does not present any of these characters as saints. They were flawed conflicted human beings caught up in a extraordinary situation which only highlights their indomitable determination and fortitude to walk out of that forest alive. James Newton Howard’s brilliant score with haunting violin solos from Joshua Bell deserve special mention among the talented artists who made Defiance come to life. This is a must-see movie and another towering cinematic achievement for Zwick his best since Glory.