Sliding in on the tail-end of the summer action movie season, Salt, out this week in the UK, has been somewhat overshadowed by The A-Team and The Expendables, two monstrously big hitters both showcasing the gratuitously greased-up torsos of a load of old men. Salt dares to be different by proffering that rarest of beasts: a lady action hero.
Your heart doesn’t sing with hope for the future of feminism when a film like Salt comes along, especially when you learn that Tom Cruise was originally attached for the lead role. When Angelina Jolie was hired the script underwent numerous hasty rewrites, with the eponymous protagonist undergoing the scriptwriting equivalent of gender reassignment. You can picture the Cruiser in the role, too; it’s just the kind of guns-blazing movie the pint sized star has gone for in recent years, and it’s not hard to imagine his grinning mug amongst the high-octane madness.
Salt succeeds, however, in not being another action clone; in spite of everything it’s a surprisingly engrossing and well-crafted thriller from the veteran hand of Phillip Noyce (Clear and Present Danger, Patriot Games) that keeps you guessing. Amidst the ludicrous stunts and silly twists there is a gripping, well crafted plot and some ably-directed action scenes to make Salt one of the more watchable popcorn movies of the year.
The copious marketing has not dulled the key question of the film: who is Salt? Evelyn Salt is a more complex action hero than we are used to, one who makes some distinctly unheroic and sometimes shocking choices. This is a captivating lead character with an identity crisis to rival that of Jason Bourne, even if Jolie never truly convinces us that this dainty vision of A-list beauty could kick so many burly henchman’s asses.
A little Cold War nostalgia is indulged in for the villains of the tale: a group of Russian ex-KGB ‘sleeper spies’ who infiltrate American society with the ultimate long term aim of bringing the old superpower rivals to the brink of nuclear war, a premise less far fetched in the wake of the recent Anna Chapman spy scandals. Jolie, accused of being such a Ruskie, goes on the run to clear her name – or so we are led to believe…
The twisty plot unravels thusly, and from very early on the pace never lets up. The action is exceedingly well shot (an initial car chase sequence is thrilling) and for the most part, this is a film which grabs you tightly by the nads and doesn’t let go.
Only occasionally does the standard slip; there’s a bizarre scene where Jolie dons some prosthetics as a disguise, ostensibly to look like a man, with the effect that she has just undergone some poorly performed gender reassignment surgery. There’s also some dialogue in rather poor taste – prepare to wince at lines like “one billion angry Muslims”.
And, like most action films (yes, even Bourne), there’s a plethora of plot holes. But these can be reasonably excused for the sake of an intriguing concept, an exhilarating serving of high quality action and a gripping script which will keep you tightly hooked. Noyce has a made good one here, who aided by the cinematography of Robert Elswit and the editing of Stuart Baird and John Gilroy – proves what an accomplished team can do with lots of cash and no comic book frame to work from. Salt could turn out to be the best action movie of the year, and this from the former face of luxury fashion brand St John. Who’d have thunk it?