Wednesday, December 22, 2010

THE YAWN OF THE CHASE: a review of "Salt"

Written by Kurt Wimmer
Directed by Philip Noyce
** (two stars)

Every now and again, I wonder, or even fear that I either have outgrown or even worse, have become too old to enjoy an action movie. I find myself growing increasingly weary at the sight of yet another car chase, shoot-out, and cavalcade of explosions all the while growing increasingly troubled that the sights and spectacle of so many movies has now lost its cinematic luster. But then, celluloid lightning will strike again, giving me a film going experience top cherish and treasure.

In the case of this year, which had more than its amount of brain dead big budget action movies, the top prize for me is easily awarded to Christopher Nolan’s “Inception,” which showed exactly how well art, skill, craftsmanship, vision and commerce can join hands in creating a cinematic experience that stands as untouchable and even encourages and rewards several subsequent viewings.

Furthermore and even beyond that figurative lightning, the pleasure of seeing a great movie reveals to me that my increasing boredom has nothing to do with advancing age but everything to do with exactly how many movies I have seen throughout my life. I simply know more than ever what works for me, what doesn’t and I always have to allow myself to remain open for surprise, especially when there just doesn’t seem to be any reason to be surprised anymore.

I mention these particular musings as I have just finished viewing “Salt,” the latest politically themed action thriller from Director Phillip Noyce who most famously helmed two entries in the adventures of author Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan character, “Patriot Games” (1992) and “Clear And Present Danger” (1994), both starring Harrison Ford. Yes, “Salt” is a more than competent action movie, executed with the skill and tension we would expect from a director of Noyce’s stature. And while there is more than enough gunpowder to satisfy audiences, this was precisely the type of action movie where I felt so decidedly underwhelmed as it had the sheet music with all of the necessary notes to play but it just could not make the material sing.

Angelina Jolie stars as Evelyn Salt, a CIA agent, happily married to Mike Krause (August Diehl), a German arachnologist (yuch!). On the day of her wedding anniversary, Salt is fingered by an aging Russian defector as being not only a Russian spy, but a “sleeper agent” now “awakened” with the purpose of assassinating the visiting Russian president to incite a war between Russia and the United States. Salt quickly goes on the run to prove her innocence, all the while being doggedly pursued by Agent Peabody (the great Chiwetel Ejiofor) and subtlety aided by Ted Winter (Liev Schreiber), her CIA partner. As Salt continues to run and effectively mow down absolutely anyone who even thinks of standing in her way, her pursuers and the audience are forced to question her motives, her allegiances and the validity of her identity.

Essentially “Salt” is nothing more than a chase movie. There’s nothing wrong with that but as I yawned through this particular chase movie, I found myself wondering about why some chase films work better than others. I could not help but to immediately remember Director Andrew Davis’ superlative “The Fugitive” (1993) with Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones, which was the quintessential “edge-of-your-seat” action thriller. Yet, it transcended its genre trappings not only through the tightly wound screenplay but also with Davis’ top flight and gritty direction and the crackerjack performances from the cast that made me completely buy the fantasy on display.

While I have not been a fan of the three Jason Bourne films, I have to concede that even those hyperkinetic films have also transcended their genre trappings through creating its own cinematic universe where even the most feverishly outrageous situations are firmly grounded by the gravity of the cast and with Matt Damon as the strongest of anchors.

Which leads me to what I think is the greatest problem with “Salt” and that is the film’s star, Angelina Jolie. In my positive review of Clint Eastwood’s ”Changeling”(2008), I remarked that while I felt that Jolie definitely commanded screen presence, I didn’t think she was very skilled as an actress (although I thought she did a very good job in Eastwood’s film). For an unexplained reason, I just have a natural aversion to Angelina Jolie. For many years now, I have become ever so drowsy at the sight of Jolie, carrying around another big gun in one more equally loud and drowsy film after another. I am just not a fan of Angelina Jolie’s at all. She is just one of those actresses whose popularity eludes me and the sight of her in new films tends to make my heart sink.

So, what was wrong with Angelina Jolie in this film, especially she has been in more than her fair share of action films over the years? Frankly, to my eyes, she looked absolutely terrible. She looked frail. She looked underweight, underfed and borderline anorexic. She looked like she just didn’t even have the body strength to run a few feet or yards, let alone hurl herself from the tops of one semi-truck to another, toss herself from speeding trains, mercilessly take down one “twice her size” adversary after another and so on. Every battle, and there are a lot of them, made me think that I would soon hear the terrifying sounds of Ms. Jolie’s brittle bones cracking and popping as if they were the crashing sounds of a falling Yahtzee game.

In order for a chase movie this propulsive to work at its best, I have to be able to buy the fantasy the filmmakers are feverishly selling. Part of that particular sales pitch is the act of giving me an action hero or heroine that I can believe is able to sail and survive throughout these wild adventures. Going back to “The Fugitive” and the Jason Bourne movies for a moment, the fact that those films had the likes of Harrison Ford and Matt Damon, in full fighting weight combined with the peak of their acting talents on board, made it essential to the overall experience of buying the fantasy.

Taking the aspects of male/female capability in these types of films into account and making the playing field a bit more equal, take Uma Thurman in Quentin Tarantino’s extraordinary “Kill Bill” films (2003/2004). Thurman is tall, thin and not muscle bound in the least. But, what she had to do in her role as The Bride was to convince the audience instantly that she was an assassin with bottomless rage enacting revenge upon the ones who placed a bullet in her brain on her wedding day. And in the very first major sequence of the first film, Thurman had me convinced completely. Aside from the sheer physicality of the role, Tarantino gave her an internal acting role that elicited the performance of her life. I bought the fantasy and believed, without a shadow of a doubt that Uma Thurman could endure the grueling training sequences, wield a sword and eviscerate 88 assailants, and even spring forth from the depths of a grave.

With “Salt” and Angelina Jolie in particular, I could not buy the fantasy she and Noyce were selling and since the action is essentially all there is to “Salt”, I was unfortunately disconnected with the experience as a whole. Perhaps if she were in her much healthier Lara Croft physique, it would have been much more convincing but for this film, it looked as if she would faint if she even broke a sweat. Not the image I think Noyce was looking for when needing someone to fill the role of a potential Russian double secret agent with extremely lethal fighting skills.

Dear readers, “Salt” is not a bad movie by any means at all. I am certain that many of you will see it and thoroughly enjoy the thrills and spills, if you have not already done so and that is great. I would not discourage you from seeing it. It just didn't work for me. I wasn’t convinced or that entertained with what I was watching to begin with. And despite how well made of a film it is, I wasn’t properly excited or exhilarated to the point that a white knuckle action movie needs to be. Like Tony Scott's "Unstoppable," I didn’t think that it had that je ne sais quoi, that certain something, to push it over the top into an experience more than memorable and actually, it all ultimately seemed to be more than a little silly.

None moreseo than the film’s final scenes, which were obviously setting up the inevitable sequel, with Jolie vowing unrepentant revenge and Ejiofor, as the only one knowing her true identity.

Perhaps they could call the next installment “Salt and Pepper.”

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