(SPOILERS) Not so many years back, if you wanted a kickass female action hero, you called popular alleged Illuminati Satanist Angelina Jolie’s agent before Charlize Theron’s. She was Lara Croft – the big screen original, for what that’s worth (not much) – met Brad Pitt while trying to shoot him up, and tutored James McAvoy in the ways of the super assassin. Salt was the last such vehicle she headlined and seems to have received its share of invective over the years, but it’s one I rather liked, a ludicrously pulpy spy thriller – whatever surface comparisons were made with sleeper poster girl Anna Chapman were just that – that refused to stint on, relished even, its absurd developments and proceeded to its destination at a breakneck pace. Having heard the Director’s Cut improved on a few things, I thought I’d give it a look.
I’m not sure it does, really. It’s about the same all in all, but with a twist ending that invokes, of all movies, G.I. Joe: Rise of the Cobra (it is a decent twist, to be fair), as it’s implied the new US President is another sleeper agent (the picture was already in danger of reaching Murder on the Orient Express levels of having virtually everyone in positions of power in on it). Ironically, this seems exactly the sort of cliffhanger you’d expect franchise-minded studio heads to favour, yet they wet with the much less intriguing open one in the theatrical cut, simply having Salt leap out of a helicopter, with Chiwetel Eijofor’s permission, in order to track down remaining KA-12 agents; they also opted for it over the more final Extended Edition in which, rather than killing Orlov (Daniel Olbrychski), on the barge prior to the climactic sequence, she does so after escaping, blowing up the sleeper training facility to boot. Which is all a bit too neat and pat.
I well recall the movie’s sometime development hell, with it initially announced as a Tom Cruise vehicle under the title Edwin A Salt about three years before it eventually got made and released (Cruise ultimately opted out because he felt Salt was too close to Ethan Hunt – which didn’t stop him from making Knight and Day instead). Kurt Wimmer penned the screenplay, one of his better post-Equilibrium forays, which include dire remakes (Total Recall and Point Break) and hacky genre vehicles (Street Kings, Law Abiding Citizen). He reportedly had his draft for Salt 2 nixed by Jolie back in 2012, but if there’s little chance of it being revived with its original star, never fear, as Sony has a TV version planned.
Philip Noyce, a director as comfortable making smaller, more politicised pictures (Rabbit Proof Fence, The Quiet American) as journeyman Hollywood blockbusters, had previously worked with Jolie on the execrable The Bone Collector, and does a more than presentable job here. The key to Salt’s success is ensuring it maintains such a pace that you don’t have sufficient time to debate its debatable plot progressions, almost all of which require incredibly unlikely circumstances to align at precise intersections in order to play out as they do. Noyce succeeds admirably, and the picture comes in at such a tidy length (still just 104 minutes in the longer Director’s Cut) that you’d assume, in the current age of bloat, it had been hacked to pieces by the studio (there were reshoots, but the studio was quite confident about the $110m budget picture, which went on to make almost $300m worldwide).
It might have been more interesting if Salt had no qualms about being a Russian sleeper and was all for carrying out her mission (certainly, her wet blanket arachnologist husband (August Diehl) does nothing to convince us she’d switch allegiances for love). Or even more so if the Director’s Cut had Liev Schreiber’s also-sleeper agent and CIA colleague Ted Winter besting her (I know, that was never going to happen). Or he’d been the focus of the plot (Schreiber had already played a sleeper in Jonathan Demme’s The Manchurian Candidate remake half a decade earlier), since Schreiber has a tendency to seemingly effortlessly wrestle attention from his lead co-star any time he’s in anything, and Salt is no exception. The most fun to be had in the movie is when he reveals his true status and promptly goes kill crazy on a room filled with presidential staff. And President.
One might argue the McGuffin objective of the plot (aiming nuclear missiles at Mecca and Tehran so as to “enrage two billion Muslins”) is rather redundant, since the US has achieved that objective with no outside interference, but this is Hollywood fantasy, logic being entirely by the by. Jolie’s expectedly impassive in the lead, which suits the performance, although her thrashing about with those stick-thin arms and legs in action scenes takes a bit of getting used to. On the Ethan Hunt comparison front, at one point she dons prosthetics to infiltrate the White House that leave her looking surprisingly(?) like her brother. Ejiofor provides solid support in a thankless role, Andre Braugher is blink and you’ll miss him, while Corey Stoll shows us he didn’t have any hair long before he was getting lead roles. Salt’s good fun, despite the naysayers, and you could do worse than take in a double bill of this and Atomic Blonde. Which cut, though? There isn’t much in it, but I’d avoid the Extended.
Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.