“I have come to tell you a story…”
Director Phillip Noyce is no stranger to the spy-and-espionage genre. His father was an intelligence officer with the Australian government, and he spent many years of his childhood listening to tales of derring-do. He often recounts in interviews how he would play spy as a young man. He would pick out some stranger he’d see while out and about. For the next several hours he would follow that person, noting their actions, all the while practicing not getting caught. He’ll tell you that his nerve got the best of him or he might have very well found himself following in the footsteps of his father. Perhaps someone else would have been making films about his exploits. Instead he gravitated to the next best thing. He decided to make movies about such things. Some of those films like Clear And Present Danger and Patriot Games are solid examples of the genre. Others might not be quite so successful at the box office but are often better than their numbers might indicate. Count Salt in that category. Salt was obviously intended to start a new franchise. The ending doesn’t even hide the setup for another film. But the reality is that the movie made only about $118 million on a $110 million budget. $7 million might sound like a lot of money to you or me, but in Hollywood those aren’t the kinds of numbers on which solid franchises are built. Too bad, really, because Salt is a pretty entertaining film.
“… It had all started with an American named Lee Harvey Oswald. In 1959 he emigrated to Russia. Three years later he returned home. But the man who came back to America was, in fact a Russian spy named Alek. On November 22, 1963 Alek became the first success of the new program and a hero to the Soviet Union. The master spy was now given the go-ahead to create many more like Alek. Scores of agents, males and females, to be substituted for Americans.”
Evelyn Salt (Jolie) begins the film in the hands of the North Korean military. She is being tortured and questioned. She has been accused of being an American spy but of course denies it all under the most extreme of interrogation. Before she can crack, she is part of a prisoner exchange brought about from pressure by her husband, a spider expert who works for the Smithsonian. Michael (Diehl) is there when she’s released.
Jump to the present day, and Evelyn and Michael are about to celebrate their wedding anniversary. Evelyn does indeed work for the CIA. As she’s about to leave the office for the day to join her husband, she and her partner Ted Winter (Schreiber) are called in to interview a walk-in Russian defector. Vassily Orlav (Olbrychski) has a fascinating story to tell. He describes a Cold War Russian program to train young children as sleeper agents and then infiltrate them into American families. There they would await activation. He claims one such agent is now about to be activated to kill the visiting Russian President in order to precipitate a war between Russia and The United States. The sleeper agent’s name? Evelyn Salt.
What happens next combines the elements of some of the better Cold War films and more than a little bit of the Bourne franchise. Evelyn manages to escape with thrilling chase scenes. Of course, we’re left to guess what her motives are. She is trying to uncover exactly who she might be, and then she has to choose a side. In the meantime, there’s going to be a lot of running, shooting and adrenaline-packed action.
There are a few elements that you can always count on when you are watching a Phillip Noyce thriller. There’s going to be somebody running, and there’s going to be somebody chasing for a good percentage of the action. A lot of stuff is going to get smashed up. Bullets are going to fly liberally. The fate of the world is going to hang in the balance. Salt is no exception to these Noyce axioms of filmmaking. He keeps the pace going at such a frantic rate that you never have time to question some of the more extraordinary feats that you’re seeing. The screen is alive with stunts and effects that push the envelope.
Angelina Jolie does an impressive turn as the action hero in the movie. The film was not originally written for her. In fact, it was originally written for a man. Tom Cruise was the target actor in the beginning. But you’re not going to be thinking about Tom Cruise or any other action actor. Jolie more than holds her own here. She does a lot of her own stunt work, which helps to keep the illusion of Evelyn’s jeopardy alive for the viewer. Noyce does an excellent job of layering in practical effects where he can and enhancing it all with computer-generated material. The whole composition comes together seamlessly, and we are able to allow Jolie’s performance to carry us without constantly being distracted by the filmmaking. It’s not her first action film, of course. It is more than likely her wildest. Noyce has the knack for creating a huge palette while still maintaining an intimate nature to his films. Many of the chase scenes which show Evelyn jumping from the roofs of trucks as they barrel down the highway are obviously huge events. But then you have the gunfights, which are often filmed in tight places where the camera appears to be squeezed into a tight space that Evelyn must fight her way out of. It’s claustrophobic as hell, but it brings the action right into your lap. That action is literally non-stop here. You get the sense that Jolie, like us, is just getting swept up in the excitement.
Salt brings back the old school Cold War thriller. Since 1989 it has been a bit harder to pull that one off. We’ve moved on to other more frightening enemies, and the Cold Warriors of the old Soviet Union just aren’t that scary anymore. Most films that try to operate in this arena tend to fail quite miserably. The truth is that there are a ton of audience members out there that weren’t even alive before the fall of the Soviet Union. Of course, you could always do a period piece, but that’s not what’s happening here. Salt takes place in the modern post-Cold War age. Yet our old friend, the threat of nuclear annihilation between the countries, is resurrected like the corpse on Dr. Frankenstein’s table. It’s just as unpredictable and devastating, too, when placed in Noyce’s capable hands. But to keep the modern threads alive, the movie throws in a little modern fundamentalist Muslim terrorist activity. It all adds up to a pretty explosively entertaining film.
In addition to Jolie, the cast includes Liev Schreiber as Evelyn’s partner. It’s a strong performance from Schreiber, and it’s layered with the kind of nuance that Noyce’s characters are always noted for. Polish actor Daniel Olbrychski is quite chilling as the main bad guy here. When he’s sitting in the interrogation room telling Evelyn his story about the Russian infiltration program, you really get sucked into his performance here. The monolog is delivered with tremendous power. While it might not be quite as good, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Robert Shaw’s incredible Indianapolis soliloquy in Jaws. It’s one of the highlights of the movie and is over much too soon. It’s the powerful calm before the devastating storm. It’s a brilliant setup.
It’s hard to ignore many of the Bourne elements in the film. There are even a few scenes that look like they were ripped straight out of that franchise. There’s a scene where Jolie, just minutes in front of the feds, hides on a ledge outside of her apartment window. We see one of the agents look out as she hides behind an AC unit. You’ll get a real case of déjà vu here if you’ve seen The Bourne Identity. There are the elements of Evelyn wanting to get back at the people who “made” her. The idea of the Agency chasing down one of their own highly-trained officers also takes a page out of those books. But I’m going to say for the record that this film is better than the Bourne movies. Jolie is a much better actor than Damon ever will be. There is an emotional charge to this movie that those films have never been able to fully pull off. I’ll take Salt over Bourne every time.
Salt is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.40:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at an average 25-30 mbps. The high-definition image is mostly a pretty solid affair. There are some moments of inconsistency. Many of the fast-paced action scenes appear to lose some of the sharpness and detail that can be experienced in the more lingering shots. I’m not talking about the fact that things move so fast you really don’t get a good view. Even when you do get a good look, there is a softness to many of these shots. When Evelyn is on the roofs of the trucks in one chase scene there is a softness obvious even in the close-ups. When the crew can better control conditions and lighting, there is wonderful detail. There is a cathedral interior that is simply stunning. Colors are all pretty natural, so nothing really pops on the screen. Black levels are a little disappointing, actually. Fortunately, there aren’t a ton of them, but it does mar some of the last few scenes that set up the future films. There just isn’t any real shadow definition and certainly nothing incredibly deep in the blacks. The print is flawless, and there aren’t really any compression issues to deal with.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 is a sight better than the image. This is a fast-paced thriller, and there’s always a lot going on around the central character. The chase scenes provide some very aggressive use of surrounds. It doesn’t matter if it’s traffic, sirens, explosions or gunfire; your senses will be under a constant barrage of surround sounds. In all of this the dialog remains completely intact and easy to hear. The score is at times a bit too loud for my tastes, but you can understand the reasons with such a frantic pace.
There is an Audio Commentary with Noyce and other crew members. He allows various folks to talk about the various technical aspects of the shoot. As for Noyce? He concentrates on all of that spy chatter that he apparently never tires of discussing.
All of the features are in High Definition.
Spycam Mode: This is one of those interactive viewing modes that brings up various extras as you view the film. They’ve gotten quite common on Blu-ray releases.
The Ultimate Female Action Hero: (8:05) This feature is a profile of Jolie, particularly highlighting her stunt work on the film. It’s a total love-fest and a bit too much hype. Noyce tries to sell the notion that this is really the first female butt-kicking piece ever. I guess he missed stuff like Alias, Underworld, Terminator or any of the Alien films.
The Real Agents: (12:33) Real intelligence officers from both the CIA and KGB talk about the real-world business of spying.
Spy Disguise: (5:26) A look at the many looks of Evelyn Salt in the movie as she tries to change her looks. Most of the time is spent on her disguise as a dude.
The Modern Master Of The Political Thriller: (9:15) This is a profile of Phillip Noyce. Most of this stuff is also in the commentary. Noyce talks about the important elements of a spy film. There’s plenty of behind the scenes footage here.
False Identity – Creating A New Reality: (7:14) Go behind the scenes and see how many of the f/x were created.
Salt – Declassified: (29:47) This is the more traditional making-of feature. It addresses the changes necessary when the gender of the character was changed. Unfortunately, a lot of footage here is directly repeated from some of the other features.
Radio Interview With Phillip Noyce: (27:12)
As Washington debates a new SALT treaty in Congress, we have our own little Salt debate to consider. The movie was obviously made as the start of a new franchise. The last 15 minutes of the movie are an almost shameless setup for more movies to come. It has that pilot feel to it here. That was and still is the plan in spite of the film pulling in a very disappointing $118 million at the box office. The budget was $110 million. $7 million might sound like a hefty profit, but it’s not. The film budget’s don’t include promotional and other expenses derived from distributing he movie. This one really lost money. Phillip Noyce just this week announced that he was not going to participate in the sequel. That’s more bad news for the franchise. I’m not sure they’re going to find anyone better. With Jolie’s hefty salary demands, the next one just can’t be any cheaper to make. Don’t be surprised if this one isn’t shelved for at least a little while. You can bet that Sony is going to be watching the home video sales a bit closely. Meanwhile here’s your chance to watch Jolie a little bit more closely in high definition. After all, “Utilitarian is the new sexy”.