Photos courtesy of Columbia Pictures
Review by Ryan Wilson

Funny how some twenty years after it ended, Hollywood still clings stubbornly to the Cold War for its action pictures. One wonders why exactly, but you could probably fill in those blanks considering how potentially offensive or insensitive it is to portray America's new enemies accurately. It's just easier to return to the Russians, probably because we've been conditioned for so long to see them as a threat.

The new spy thriller Salt relies heavily on those old school Commies. It may be 2010, but according to Kurt Wimmer's script, the Soviet empire hasn't gone dark. Quite the opposite in fact. The film would have us believe that its collapse was only a ruse to lull America off guard. Meanwhile the KGB trained its next generation of operatives to be thoroughly American. They did this, according to the film, by raising their children on Brady Bunch reruns, and then sending them to the United States where they would acquire high-level security jobs and await the day when they were ordered to strike.

Depending on your Cold War nostalgia, this is either an extremely clever plan or the silliest spy plot ever. Either way it's the most paranoid invasion premise since Red Dawn.

But that's just the first half of the film's equation. The second half is figuring out which side our protagonist, Evelyn Salt, is playing for. Portrayed by Angelina Jolie, she begins the film as an American operative celebrating her wedding anniversary. Enter an imposing Russian defector into her headquarters, and all of a sudden she's accused of being a double agent whose mission is to assassinate the new Russian President. This would make it look like an American agent killed him. Evelyn flees the scene with the aid of her panties, and from there the film is one big loud chase.

As you might surmise, Salt is short on subtlety, which is a surprise because it is directed by Phillip Noyce, whose adaptations of Tom Clancy’s Patriot Games, Clear and Present Danger, and Graham Green’s The Quiet American are spy stories that emphasize patience and nuance. Noyce usually wants to dwell on character in order to let his action climaxes mean more.

Not so with Salt. It's meant to be pure adrenaline, as we first empathize with Evelyn, who says a tearful goodbye to her pet dog, but then we begin to doubt her as she randomly shoots her way toward where she shouldn't be going if she is innocent. We don't dwell on her character because her character is the central question of the film.

Jolie obviously gets the limelight. Originally the role of Salt was to be male, which would have dulled the proceedings considerably. Since we've seen most of this stuff before, most often in James Bond films, the choice of gender feels at least new if not novel. Cast the standard 80s action star like Stallone or Bruce Willis and we'd really have seen it all before.

Even with Jolie as the lead, at times Salt feels like just another Tomb Raider movie, full of explosions, one-liners, and mild twists. I might be one of the few straight males I know not completely captivated by Jolie. Other than in Beowulf, where she made an excellent choice for Grendel’s scaly mother, I tend to find Jolie rather empty as a screen presence. That emptiness suits her character in Salt, but eventually I stopped caring altogether who she was. In the course of the film she darkens her hair, as if to tell us that she's walking on the dark side. But with the gesture I was simply reminded that it was Angelina Jolie, every other male's fantasy, complete with a gun, another fantasy for many men.

Speaking of fantasy, Salt takes a dismal view on how our nation defends its elected leaders. Getting to the president looks just about as easy for these Russians as getting cash at an ATM. It's not even challenging. At on point Jolie dawns a cheesy disguise in order to infiltrate the White House. She then single-handedly raids the presidential bunker all on her own. I'm not offended as an American here. It's my intelligence that feels insulted.

And yet as absurd as the movie is, I couldn't help but be reminded of the recent headlines about the Russian spy ring discovered in suburban America. One of these was a housewife, which perplexed a neighbor who couldn't believe a spy could grow such a beautiful flower garden.

This is the sort of detail that Salt completely lacks. The film is so gung-ho about its carnage that the more banal realities of the spy trade are ignored. Yet those banal realities would have heightened the tension and the complexity. They would have also rounded out the world the film tries to inhabit, in the way that the much better Cold War thriller No Way Out did back in the 1980s.

Salt isn't just lacking in texture, it's lacking in anything that grounds us into caring. The film needs to take more time to smell its Russian spy's flowers.

Take 5 on Film is a production of Delta College's WUCX Q 90.1, airing every Saturday at 8:35 a.m. and again at 9:35 a.m. and produced by Jennifer Vande Zande. For more information, visit deltabroadcasting.org.

© Ryan Wilson, 2010