Thursday 16 December 2010

Salt (2010)

Thursday 16 December 2010

Angelina Jolie's perhaps the best female action star working in Hollywood, and a good dramatic actress to boot. She alternates her roles well (alternating highbrow work like The Changeling and A Mighty Wind with popcorners like Tomb Raider and Wanted), and director Philip Noyce's Salt is definitely in the latter camp. From the pen of Kurt Wimmer (Thomas Crown Affair, Ultraviolet), a screenwriter who often appropriates other films and ideas for his own ends (his Equilibrium was The Matrix-meets-1984), this movie is a preposterous escalation of thrills and spills, rarely stopping to catch its breath. Imagine a season of TV thriller 24, mostly told from the perspective of the villains, condensed into less than two hours, and that's what Salt delivers -- in handfuls, forget a pinch.

Evelyn Salt (Jolie) is a highly-skilled CIA agent (once detained and tortured in North Korea until her German husband (August Dieh) arranged her return to the US), tasked with interviewing Russian defector Orlov (Daniel Olbrychski) who claims his country's visiting president is going to be assassinated by a Soviet sleeper agent. The twist being that the informant identifies Salt as the appointed assassin, and Salt appears to confirms her guilt by going on the run, chased by her dumbfounded friends/colleagues Peabody (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Winter (Liev Schreiber). But is Salt an activated sleeper determined to complete her mission, even if her cover's been blown? Maybe she's a double-agent with honourable intentions? Or does Salt have her own agenda?

Salt is one of those runaway train-style viewing experiences, which doesn't stay still long enough for you to worry about its ludicrous plot and outdated viewpoint. The whole story is predicated on Cold War concerns that make it something of a throwback to thrillers from the '70s and '80s -- but in a media currently dominated by Islamic extremists, Salt's ex-Soviet radicals felt like a welcome change of pace. The downside is that they obviously don't captures a current mood or political anxiety, which means Salt is intentionally dated in its values. Would the movie really not have worked with more apposite villains for this day and age?

Jolie is a strong presence and totally believable as a female Jason Bourne with added iciness, but there's unfortunately no clear delineation between Evelyn Salt (loving wife, patriotic American) and Evelyn Salt (loyal commie, merciless killer), while Jolie herself is perhaps too A-list for you to believe the outcome will be anything too surprising. Still, it could have been worse: Tom Cruise was the original lead, when the script was called Edwin Salt, until he decided flexing comedy muscles in Knight & Day would be a better career move.

Overall, Salt is a wild confection of old-school concerns and modern verve; mainly relying on its pace, succession of tight action sequences, and a few genuine surprises. It's very possible to guess its twists and the ultimate outcome, but the film does a good job keeping you gripped with the unfolding mayhem and consequently distracted from thinking too far ahead. Or at least, that's how I approached this material, and I was rewarded with a gloriously daft but entertaining action-thriller in the 24 tradition.

Blu-ray Review

Picture (2.40:1, 1080p/AVC MPEG-4) The video presentation is very good, if not extraordinary. Detail is sharp and there's a nice layer of film grain, with very deep blacks and strong colour. It's nothing dazzling, but it's a transfer you won't have many complaints about.

Sound (English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, French DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1) The lossless DTS-HD track is excellent; immersive, clear and offering near-constant delights. Dialogue remains crisp throughout, there's great use of rear speakers during the many action sequences, and the music score is distinct and balanced at all times. Fantastic.

Special Features

First, it's worth noting that you get three different cuts of the film on this disc: Theatrical, Director's Cut, and Extended Edition. Is that a record for a movie making its home video debut? I watched the extended edition, figuring it would contain the most material.

Spy Cam (PiP) You can watch this extra within the movie itself, as it offers a rolling commentary from director Noyce and star Jolie, with Making Of footage and interviews. (Note: only accessible on the Theatrical cut)

Commentary: The director Phillip Noyce provides a very good audio commentary that's more insightful and interesting than the PiP track, even if it mostly sounds rehearsed. Noyce includes many anecdotes about his own dealings with the world of espionage (his father trained spies), and Salt's similarities to his '90s flop The Saint.

The Ultimate Female Action Hero (8 mins) A behind-the-scenes featurette focusing on Angelina Jolie and her natural aptitude for action roles like this.

The Real Agents (13 mins) A collection of real stories from genuine spies, including a KGB Major General and various CIA officers. Their stories focus on elements used in the movie, such as sleeper agents and false identities. Interesting.

Spy Disguise: The Looks Of Evelyn Salt (5 mins) Brief featurette about the makeup used on the film, particularly the latex used to turn Jolie into a man.

The Modern Master Of The Political Thriller: Phillip Noyce (10 mins) Essentially a retread of his audio commentary, but briefer and with the visual element. Unnecessary.

False Identity: Creating A New Reality (7 mins) A quick look at the visual effects of Salt, which involved a lot more compositing of fake elements into real shots than you'd imagine. A good extra feature, but deserved more attention.

Salt: Declassified (30 mins) The disc's focal extra is this documentary about the making of the film, which unfortunately recycles lots of footage from the other extras. Still, that means simply watching this documentary covers a lot of bases, fairly broadly.

The Treatment (30 mins) Radio interview with Noyce, which covers things he's already spoken about elsewhere on the disc -- twice! Consequently surplus to requirement.

Extras MovieIQ, if you're so inclined.

DIRECTOR: Phillip Noyce
WRITER: Kurt Wimmer
CAST: Angelina Jolie, Liev Schreiber, Chiwetel Ejiofor, August Diehl & Daniel Olbrychski
RUNNING TIME: 100 mins (theatrical) BUDGET: $110m