Thursday, July 29, 2010

Salt: Cold War Pot Boiler Misses Mark

The title of the new movie Salt, starring Angelina Jolie as a CIA agent with a mysterious identity, is meant to share several connotations: SALT as in the treaty with Russia; Salt as in “salt in the wound.” And “salt,” a moniker of grit and determination, as in “salty sailor.”

Sadly, each of these sounds more interesting than the movie makes of it.

The movie starts with a promising set-up. Salt is has been captured in North Korea, where she’s tortured; she’s released after her long-suffering husband has struggled to get her out. For a CIA agent, she goes back home to a remarkably placid suburban life: trading cereal-breakfast bon mots with her arachnid-studying husband and taking care of their cute terrier (the dog is here to signal that Salt, salty as she is, has a nurturing side.)

The character is a kind of rudimentary James Bond: asexual and stoic, Salt may have just as well have been played by a man as by a desexualized Angelina Jolie.

Soon, however, a strange Russian defector walks into her office, and she and her boss (Liev Schreiber) have to debrief him only to find a puzzle: he claims that Salt is not really Salt at all, but a Russian double-agent who was planted in American society years ago, as a child, only to be activated today, for a special assignment: to assassinate the Russian president while visiting America for the funeral of the American Vice President.

Naturally, Salt – highly trained at evasion and mayhem – decides to go on the lam, claiming to her protective boss and the suspicious Internal Affairs officer (Chiwetal Ejiofor, who played a similar beleaguered government official in Roland Emmerich’s 2012) that she’s really running out of concern for her husband’s safety. We even get to see her rescue her dog, just to make the point that we’re to root for her.

Here’s where the movie breaks down, and maybe it’s because recent events have made the remaining story of Soviet spies, Cold War, and spies on the lam seem so quaint. The most interesting thing about the recent gaggle of undercover Soviet spies weren’t that they were dangerous, but that they’d become so influenced by American society that they were more interested in home mortgages than in uncovering secret documents. One of the spies wrote home to her handlers in Russia for permission to buy their house, “because that’s what people do in America, and we feel we should do that to blend in.”

Once her cover is “blown,” Salt has no concern about blending in – in fact, just the opposite, she uses the opportunity to go on a kind of wild spree of espionage and revenge – and the movie decides to reveal the answer to the mystery right in the middle of the second act, deflating any remaining tension. There’s even a moment after Salt has killed an entire boat full of Russian mobsters and spies when the movie takes an audible pause, as if thinking to itself, “well, where can we go from here?”

Where it decides to go next is a kind of high-stakes assassination-fest lifted from the plot of Eagle Eye, but it doesn’t really matter. By this time, we know who Salt is: a Cold-War era cartoon character being set up not by the KGB, but by the studio. In the end, Salt turns out to be a kind of triple-agent – and influenced by her life in America after all. Her first cover has been blown, but not her second, and she offers herself up to be turned by the Internal Affairs chief into another kind of operative, one who can operate off the books assassinating bad-guy Russians in innumerable sequels, a kind of Russian Doll version of James Bond.

The only problem is that the Russians aren’t the bad guys anymore – in fact, they are suffused with capitalism, and can barely get their own spies to give up their legitimate advertising agencies. One might excuse this film for trafficking in bulky Russian goons, DefCon 2 alerts, and rogue spies out for murderous revenge if this were 1988, but here and now, the movie feels not only stiff and wooden, but determinedly out of date.

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