Angelina Jolie arrives to save the day, and possibly the summer, at least for those action fans who consider Inception too mind-bending, Predators too gory and stupid, and Knight and Day just kind of lame. For me it’s Christopher Nolan who saved the summer — Inception is the welcomest blast of fresh air from the Hollywood dream machine in years — but other than that I’m more or less on the same page.
Knight and Day is the movie that Tom Cruise made after turning down Salt, which was originally written for a man, probably Cruise himself. Cruise reasonably considered the role — a renegade super-agent on the run from his own agency — too similar to his Mission Impossible franchise, so he opted to play a different renegade agent on the run from his own agency. One with humor and romance, Knight and Day’s intended secret weapon, though both fell flat.
Turns out it’s Salt that has the secret weapon — and it’s not the Russian spy swap that’s been in the news, as bizarrely topical as that makes Salt’s tale of spy swaps and Cold War paranoia. It’s Jolie herself, one of a very few superstars — of either sex — with the panache to make material like this engaging just by being in it. I would say she’s Hollywood’s only female star capable of persuasively knocking around a half dozen armed male agents, except that Scarlett Johansson also pulled it off in Iron Man 2 as an undercover Russian spy babe called the Black Widow, a role that gave her little else to do except look luscious to Robert Downey Jr. and toss off one line in Latin. If they made a Black Widow solo movie, we could compare apples to apples. Yet here we are: Evelyn Salt has a movie, and the Black Widow doesn’t, is my point.
Is Evelyn Salt also an undercover Russian spy babe? Also, will the fact that her husband is an arachnologist who keeps exotic spiders around the apartment become an important plot point? Might we just as well call her the Black Widow? If I answered any of these questions, would they be spoilers? Let’s stick to what the movie reveals in the first fifteen minutes or so: Salt works for the CIA, and the spy swap that opens the movie (after a brief but unnecessarily graphic prologue depicting her being tortured in her underwear) concerns the USA negotiating her release from captivity in North Korea.
Salt’s release from North Korea comes about not necessarily because it was in her country’s interest to bring her back, but because her then-boyfriend Mike Krause (German actor August Diehl), whose naturalist work brought him, and thus her, to the North Korean border, apparently had enough clout with the government to pull it off. Mike doesn’t care if Salt is a spy, or even if he’ll never be safe being with her; he wants to marry her anyway. His devotion is Salt’s one real element of heart; no wonder it melted hers.
Years later, a high-ranking Russian informant named Orlov (Daniel Olbrychski) turns up with a seemingly preposterous tale about a Cold War-era Soviet espionage program in which Russian sleeper agents are trained from earliest youth to infiltrate American culture (training includes watching episodes of “The Brady Bunch” and playing the game “Operation”). Salt skeptically interrogates Orlov for her boss, Ted Winter (Liev Schreiber), and is about to walk away when Orlov drops the name of an alleged sleeper agent: Evelyn Salt. That’s my name, she tells him. Unfazed, he declares, “Then you are a Russian spy.”
And then it’s on. Winter, who knows Salt, is ready to blow it off, but fellow agent Peabody (Chiwetel Ejiofor) assumes nothing, and insists on going by the book. What happens next is anything but by the book, though. Salt goes on the run — and she runs, and runs, and runs.
This is where Philip Noyce, who directed Harrison Ford in a couple of Tom Clancy thrillers, delivers the goods. He shrewdly establishes that Salt has limits; she may be a super hero, but she’s not a comic-book super hero able to do just about anything at will. Her attempts to escape from her CIA office are repeatedly thwarted, and in the subsequent chase scene she’s injured and comes close to being killed. Noyce directs these scenes with welcome clarity in this age of incoherent action pieced together from close-ups and quick cuts.
The movie wants us to feel that Salt is like the Russian nesting doll Peabody inspects in her apartment, a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, but there’s not really much suspense here, if you’re paying attention. Still, the conflict between Salt’s CIA colleagues and their doubts about her character do generate some tension.
There's a lot of intense violence, though without overtly spoiling anything it seems safe to say that the good guys seem to be holding back and not killing anyone unnecessarily, though local hospitals will be treating lots of leg wounds and such — and when the bad guys are as bad as they get here, all bets are off.
Is it all necessary? Was there another way? In particular, was a rather, uh, extreme gambit at a funeral at St. Bart’s Episcopal Church in NYC really the best approach there?
Once you start asking questions like that, plot holes and absurdities pile up like a multi-vehicle collision. (What’s Orlov’s motivation? Why does he accuse Salt, and why does the movie have no idea what to do with him after he’s performed that necessary plot function?)
As long as Jolie is in motion, though, it all seems to make a crazy kind of sense. Salt is tasty in moderation, though you wouldn’t want to make it a big part of your diet.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.