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 box office took its typical post-Thanksgiving weekend plunge. Die Another Day showed the best signs of life, regaining first place with a modest $13 million in ticket sales.
Analyze That opened without mobs of moviegoers, placing second with $11.3 million.
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets tumbled from first to third place with $10 million.
Empire arrived to an encouraging $6.3 million.
Treasure Planet finished fifth with a lean $5.7 million.
The weekend's biggest success story was Columbia and Intermedia Films' platform release of Spike Jonze's unconventional comedy Adaptation. In its opening weekend at 7 theaters, Adaptation grossed a sizzling $400,000, averaging $57,143 per theater. (For details and comments by Columbia distribution president Rory Bruer please see OTHER OPENINGS below.)
Key films grossed $77.4 million, down nearly 6 percent from this weekend last year when they did $82.2 million.
THE TOP TEN
(NOTE: Today's percentage variations are calculated against grosses for the three day Friday-Sunday portion of the five day Thanksgiving holiday period.)
MGM and United Artists' PG-13 rated James Bond thriller Die Another Day recaptured first place from Harry Potter in its third week with an ESTIMATED $13.0 million (-58%) at 3,347 theaters (+23 theaters; $3,884 per theater). Its cume is approximately $120.4 million, heading for $165-175 million in domestic theaters.
Directed by Lee Tamahori and produced by Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli, it stars Pierce Brosnan and Halle Berry.
The last Bond film, The World Is Not Enough, opened Nov. 19-21, 1999 to $35.52 million and went on to gross $126.9 million in domestic theaters and $225.1 million in international theaters for a worldwide total of $352 million.
"It's amazing. Three weeks (in first place) in a row. We haven't had that in a very long time," MGM senior vice president, publicity Eric Kops said Sunday morning.
Warner Bros. and Village Roadshow Pictures and NPV Entertainment's R rated comedy sequel Analyze That kicked off quietly in second place to an ESTIMATED $11.3 million at 2,635 theaters ($4,288 per theater).
Directed by Harold Ramis, it stars Robert De Niro, Billy Crystal and Lisa Kudrow.
Analyze's average per theater was the highest for any film playing in over 1,000 theaters this weekend.
The series' original film, Analyze This, opened to $18.4 million the weekend of Mar. 5-7, 1999 at 2,518 theaters ($7,301 per theater). It wound up grossing $106.7 million in domestic theaters.
"Our exits are good. People had a lot of laughs," Warner Bros. Distribution president Dan Fellman said Sunday morning. "The picture plays very well. It's a good audience pleaser. And we're hoping that we will be able to continue that and play well through the holidays."
Warner Bros.' PG rated sequel Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets slid two pegs to third place in its fourth week with a calm ESTIMATED $10.02 million (-69%) at 3,387 theaters (-295 theaters; $2,958 per theater). Its cume is approximately $213.9 million.
Directed by Chris Columbus, it stars Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson.
"I think we're heading for $275 million (in domestic theaters)," Warner Bros.' Dan Fellman said.
Focusing on the big drops seen across the board this weekend versus last weekend, Fellman pointed out, "Last Friday night is the biggest day of the year (for moviegoing). People are off (starting) Wednesday afternoon. You have Thanksgiving on Thursday. Families are busy. Friday is like a Saturday because nobody works Thursday. Movies are a little soft on Thursday and them BOOM! That's the biggest day (of the holiday weekend). It's bigger than Saturday. So you have this huge gross on Friday. The following week you're coming in off of a work day on Friday."
Arenas Entertainment and Universal's R rated urban action film Empire arrived in fourth place to a solid ESTIMATED $6.27 million at 867 theaters ($7,235 per theater).
Written and directed by Franc Reyes, it stars John Leguizamo, Peter Sarsgaard and Denise Richards.
"We're very excited because this is a film that we acquired for around $650,000," Universal distribution president Nikki Rocco said Sunday morning. "It's the first venture with our partners the Arenas Group. We acquired the film for them. This fantastic opening is indicative of how we targeted the release date without attempting to compete with the high profile films (in the marketplace).
"867 playdates is not the norm for an urban action film, but we were very selective in how we distributed the film. We didn't attempt to compete with the more mainstream fare this weekend and that's evidenced by the choice of the (release) date and the marketing campaign."
Arenas, Rocco explained, "chose Empire as its first release because it's a commercial genre film. They deserve the credit for recognizing the talent of Franc Reyes, who directed and wrote Empire. The Arenas partnership is one that we plan to cultivate for a long time to come. There are plans to release all different kinds of films, which we're very excited about, particularly because they're going to showcase Latino talent for a Latino audience. They've assisted us in marketing this film because they're experts in marketing to the Latino audience. This is a hugely successful launch and I think strategically the results are exceptional."
Rocco also applauded Leguizamo's efforts to promote Empire, noting that he "worked very hard on the film and supported the film tremendously. He literally did interviews (with) every radio, TV and print outlet in every major Hispanic market. I think the results speak for themselves."
Buena Vista/Disney's PG rated animated sci-fi adventure Treasure Planet dropped one orbit to fifth place in its second week with a slow ESTIMATED $5.7 million (-53%) at 3,227 theaters (theater count unchanged; $1,754 per theater). Its cume is approximately $23.8 million.
Directed by John Musker & Ron Clements, its screenplay is by Ron Clements & John Musker.
Buena Vista/Disney's G rated comedy sequel Santa Clause 2 fell three rungs to sixth place in its sixth week, with a still funny ESTIMATED $5.4 million (-55%) at 2,356 theaters (-170 theaters; $2,296 per theater). Its cume is approximately $120.2 million, heading for $140 million in domestic theaters.
Directed by Michael Lembeck, it stars Tim Allen.
Columbia's PG-13 rated animated musical Adam Sandler's 8 Crazy Nights dropped two slots to seventh place in its second week with a less funny ESTIMATED $5.2 million (-45%) at 2,503 theaters (theater count unchanged; $2,078 per theater). Its cume is approximately $20.4 million.
Directed by Seth Kearsley, it was produced by Adam Sandler, Jack Giarraputo and Allen Covert.
New Line Cinema's R rated comedy sequel Friday After Next slid two slots to eighth place in its third week with a slow ESTIMATED $2.8 million (-62%) at 1,450 theaters (-171 theaters; $1,931 per theater). Its cume is approximately $29.1 million.
Directed by Marcus Raboy, it stars Ice Cube and Mike Epps.
Universal and Imagine Entertainment's R rated drama 8 Mile fell one peg to ninth place in its fifth week with an okay ESTIMATED $2.61 million (-55%) at 2,015 theaters (-483 theaters; $1,295 per theater). Its cume is approximately $111.2 million, heading for $125 million.
Directed by Curtis Hanson and produced by Brian Grazer, it stars Eminem, Kim Basinger, Brittany Murphy and Mekhi Phifer.
Rounding out the Top Ten was DreamWorks' PG-13 rated horror thriller The Ring, down one rung in its eighth week with an uneventful ESTIMATED $2.5 million (-52%) at 1,642 theaters (-270 theaters; $1,537 per theater). Its cume is approximately $123.3 million, heading for $130 million.
Directed by Gore Verbinski, it stars Naomi Watts, Martin Henderson and Brian Cox.
This weekend also saw the arrival of Dimension Films' R rated sci-fi thriller Equilibrium to a soft ESTIMATED $0.53 million at 301 theaters ($1,754 per theater).
Written and directed by Kurt Wimmer, it stars Christian Bale, Emily Watson, Taye Diggs and Angus MacFadyen.
Columbia and Intermedia Films' R rated unconventional comedy Adaptation kicked off to a spectacular ESTIMATED $0.4 million at 7 theaters ($57,143 per theater) -- three in New York, three in Los Angeles and one in Toronto.
Directed by Spike Jonze, it stars Nicolas Cage, Meryl Streep and Chris Cooper.
"It's terrific," Columbia distribution president Rory Bruer said Sunday morning. "The reviews are so good. We had near sell-out business everywhere. The Grove (multiplex in L.A.) was wild this weekend. Just jam-packed -- not a seat to be had. And they really seemed to like the picture a lot."
Looking ahead, Bruer said, "On Dec. 20 we'll broaden to some of the top cities, probably somewhere around 100 locations and then broaden some more on Jan. 10 to around 600 (theaters).
Revolution Studios and Columbia Pictures held about 875 well attended sneak previews Saturday of their PG-13 rated romantic comedy Maid in Manhattan.
Directed by Wayne Wang, Maid stars Jennifer Lopez and Ralph Fiennes.
"We had these great sneaks," Columbia's Rory Bruer said. "We had 875 theaters, so it was about double of what we had last week (for Friday's sneaks). They were 95 percent full. Many were sold out. It just seems to be such a terrific romantic comedy for the season. It feels really good. It opens Friday (Dec. 13) at around 2,600 theaters."
Touchstone Pictures held sneak previews Friday night of its PG-13 rated comedy The Hot Chick. No details were available from Disney Sunday morning.
Directed by Tom Brady, it stars Rob Schneider.
Chick opens wide this Friday (Dec. 13).
On the expansion front this weekend Samuel Goldwyn Films' R rated drama El Crimen del Padre Amaro went wider in is fourth week to a still hopeful ESTIMATED $0.4 million at 122 theaters (+14 theaters; $3,230 per theater). Its cume is approximately $3.1 million.
Directed by Carlos Carrera, it stars Gael Garcia Bernal and is the official Mexican entry in this year's best foreign language film Oscar race.
Miramax's R rated drama Ararat widened in its fourth week with a dull ESTIMATED $0.14 million at 42 theaters (+9 theaters; $3,405 per theater). Its cume is approximately $1.2 million.
Written and directed by Atom Egoyan, it stars David Alpay, Charles Aznavour, Eric Bogosian, Brent Carver and Marie-Josee Croze.
United Artists' R rated drama Personal Velocity, released via MGM, added theaters in its third week with a still encouraging ESTIMATED $92,000 at 20 theaters (+15 theaters; $4,595 per theater). Its cume is approximately $0.2 million.
Directed by Rebecca Miller, it stars Kyra Sedgwick, Parker Posey and Fairuza Balk. Velocity won the Grand Jury Prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival.
Key films -- those grossing more than $500,000 -- took in approximately $77.4 million this weekend, down about 5.83 percent from last year when they totaled $82.19 million.
Comparisons to last weekend of this year are not valid because last weekend was a holiday weekend.
Last year, Warner Bros.' opening week of Ocean's Eleven was first with $38.11 million at 3,075 theaters ($12,393 per theater); and Warner Bros.' fourth week of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone was second with $14.74 million at 3,672 theaters ($4,014 per theater). The top two films one year ago grossed $52.8 million. This year, the top two films grossed an ESTIMATED $24.3 million.