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Tuesday, 14 December 2010

I've been trying to think of a way to write a review of Salt (dir Phillip Noyce, 2010) without giving away the ending but it's just not possible so it's probably best not to click to read this post until you've seen the movie yourself. On the other hand, it's such a fun film to watch that you might be interested in knowing how the magic works. There are a number of peculiarities that make this spy thriller different from what's come before. The main thing is that the principal character is a woman. The second thing is that she's not trying to save the world (although she does that, too). She's trying to save her husband. I'll let others come to their own conclusions about this twist and write about how Angelina Jolie as Evelyn Salt has helped to redraw the rules of the action flic. There is probably something deep to say at this point, but that's not what I want to do.

In the beginning, Salt is about to leave work in a CIA building that has a petroleum company as a front when she's called back to duty: a defector has appeared and he has a message to deliver. His message is that Salt is a Russian spy tasked with killing the Russian president who is to visit New York to attend the funeral of the US vice president. Although alarms go off inside the heads of Salt's colleagues around the interrogation chamber, there's not much they can do when she escapes from the secure room and decamps to the second floor, an unoccupied area. A squad of armed men is sent up but Salt manages to flee barefoot. She runs to a cab which takes her home. Her husband, Mike (August Diehl), is not there. She fears the worst, grabs her panic bag, leaves her dog with a neighbour and rushes off. The flight sequence on the expressways of Washington that unfolds at this point is exceptional. Salt jumps from a bridge onto a cargo truck, from the cargo truck onto a chemical tanker, and from the chemical tanker onto a moving van. Then she grabs a motorcycle and shoots off into the night, heading for New York.

The kill at the church is just as easy for the thorough Salt, but she uses spider venom instead of a lethal bullet to immobilise the Russian president - a fact that will take a day or so to emerge into the public sphere. After the kill, she disappears onto the waterways, finishing up at a scrap yard where she makes contact with her boss, Orlov (Daniel Olbrychski). Here, she finds her husband but they shoot him dead: it's part of the total dedication demanded of her cohort of Russian spies. (As a girl, she had been indoctrinated by the spy-master and switched for the daughter of an American couple that had a car accident in Moscow. This is how she gets back to the US.) So she kills all of them on the barge and leaves to meet up with the fixer of her next job, which is to kill the American president.

The pair manage to infiltrate the White House but the Secret Service bundle the Big Guy into the elevator leading to the vault under the building. Undaunted, Salt descends via the empty elevator shaft. Once inside the chamber, she discovers that her CIA colleague, Ted (Liev Schreiber), is also a Russian plant. In the ensuing gunfight, Salt is able to survive and cancel the strike order Ted has orchestrated (targets: Mecca and Tehran) but everyone thinks she's the killer and she's bundled off into a helicopter to be removed for interrogation elsewhere. Over the Potomac, she jumps from the chopper and swims ashore. Cue credits.

There's a mesmerising volume of fast action in this film and it's instructive that Salt's motivation is purely selfless. She's a true heroin in many senses, and it would be nice to think that, if the world were given over to be run by more women, you would find more altruistic activity playing out in the media. Sadly, that's not what seems to happen, but you've gotta hand it to Noyce for putting together a compelling and interesting piece of high-tech theatre that is surely slated for long remembrance in the annals of action thrillers and cinematic geopolitical plotting.

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