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.
Ricky Bobby (Will Ferrell) has been hotdoggin’ since the day he was born--when legend has it his momma (Jane Lynch) popped him out of her belly in the back seat of a car. Now grown up and living his dream as a NASCAR driver he takes his swagger out onto the tracks with mixed results. Even though he and lifelong friend Cal (John C. Reilly) usually end up in first and second place respectively his owner deems him a financial liability after he finishes a race in reverse. Consequently a prim proper and gay French F-1 driver (Da Ali G Show’s Sacha Baron Cohen) is recruited as a new investment and Ricky gets in a horrific crash trying to beat him winding up paralyzed…in his mind. After a long road back--which sees Cal steal Ricky’s lady (Leslie Bibb) and limelight and Ricky reunite with his estranged racer dad (Gary Cole)--Ricky learns to leave showmanship homophobia and pyrophobia (fear of fire) in his dust and just drive the damn car! Ah...Will Ferrell in his total element--it’s a beautiful thing and one we haven’t much seen since SNL. Until now. In Talladega Ferrell brings his energy satire and out-of-the-blue pop-culture references to new highs in his best post-SNL performance yet. And if you close your eyes and listen to Ferrell’s faux South-speak you can hear his great George Dubya send-up of yore. Matching Ferrell scene for scene--in quality not quantity--is Reilly. With his role as a tractable doofus with a good heart Reilly has now completed the whole spectrum of roles and can be unequivocally branded an acting chameleon. Oddly he seems best fit a tractable doofus but that’s merely a testament to his abilities. Cohen’s biggest mainstream role to date is also a hit as he applies equal parts Ali G’s Borat and hyperbolic French stereotype for often hilarious results. And Amy Adams stars as Ricky’s neglected assistant; it’s a role so small that she must’ve signed on before Junebug took her to the Oscars. If after his hit ‘70s San Diego news show Ron Burgundy were to have done something to necessitate placement in a witness protection program it’s not inconceivable that he could've relocated to the South found his true calling as a pompous NASCAR driver and taken the fake-sounding name Ricky Bobby. That’s no coincidence: Talladega like Anchorman is written by Ferrell and Adam McKay who also directed. But the two have filled in the blanks from their previous collaboration for a more well-rounded effort. The duo best complement one another when it comes to Ferrell’s sense of humor; it is at its core drier than most care to realize but the co-writers manage to moisten it in such a way for all to thoroughly enjoy. What really separates this film from its predecessor though is the action--the racing scenes will surprise! And to that end McKay uses the NASCAR angle to reel in its massive contingency as well as Ferrell/comedy fans all of whom should go home happy.