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.
After 20 years with the LAPD Det. Mitch Preston (Robert De Niro) just wants to catch the crooks finish the paperwork and retreat to his mundane life at home where he eats TV dinners and pursues his hobby of making bad pottery. Patrolman Trey Sellars (Eddie Murphy) really wants to be an actor--he's only a cop because he made a lousy waiter. When Sellars bungles Preston's undercover case and media hounds catch it all on tape the irate Preston shoots up a news camera that gets in his face. Over-caffeinated network exec Chase Renzi (Rene Russo) upon seeing the damning evidence that could have killed her cameraman is captivated by Preston's complete lack of charm and convinces her superior she can save his crappy network by pairing Preston and Sellars up on a reality show. As expected Preston is reluctant--and even more so when he's forced to take the mugging Sellars as his partner. The two take impromptu acting lessons from iconic actor/director William Shatner (playing himself) and set off to attract an audience boost the ratings become celebrities and get the bad guys in a televised reality christened Showtime. Meanwhile the evil Cesar Vargas (Pedro Damian)--whom we know is evil 'cause he hides in the shadows he's flashy and well groomed and he mumbles in an unfathomable Third World/ European accent--is stockpiling guns powerful enough to knock down houses and blow the doors off a Brinks truck.
The movie offers a few good yuks--a coke-sniffing dog an unprecedented cameo by jive-rhyming lawyer Johnnie Cochran and William Shatner satirizing William Shatner (who does this better than anybody else satirizing William Shatner). Unfortunately we've seen a lot of his funniest stuff like the scene in which he demonstrates how to roll over a car hood cop-style in the previews. Rene Russo gives an effective souped-up Lethal Weapon-type performance with her hyper pushy fast-talking network exec desperate to make her name in the industry. De Niro's straight-man comedy is in his facial expressions--or lack thereof--and Murphy is…well Murphy. It's their first outing together and they play off each other like a foul-mouthed version of Abbott and Costello (guess who plays who?). We've seen De Niro play grumpy (Midnight Run) and Murphy play obnoxious (almost everything) before. But as you may suspect it's their grade-A chemistry that holds this badly stitched predictable though occasionally funny flick together--especially in regards to the jokes on Hollywood and the current bounty of reality TV.
You can smell the gags and The Odd Couple-versus-Goldfinger plot unfolding a million miles away. You just know Preston is hiding a gun inside that Big Gulp when he goes undercover to investigate a pawn shop and you know Vargas will make bad-guy errors in judgment like staging a robbery in downtown L.A. the day after he's confronted by our star cops in a populated disco. But that may lead you to wonder why the police--who are likewise not presented as being particularly bright in this movie--weren't trailing him as Vargas is the prime suspect in the gun-trafficking subplot. Some of the comedy borders on satire but isn't played up enough for you to tell if it was meant that way or not. The action scenes are so badly edited it's hard to tell who's chasing whom until the camera cuts back to Murphy's toothy grin and a cement-faced De Niro shooting out his car window. And speaking of commercial-laden reality TV the product placement in this movie is shameless--we get a full-length commercial for Apple Computers played not once but twice.