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Salt: It's a movie! It's a spy! It's a nuclear antiproliferation treaty!

Phillip Noyce's (and definitely Angelina Jolie's) lean and unpretentious "Salt" is proof positive that dumb summer thrillers don't have to be stupid. That is, it revels in absurd implausibilities that are as outrageous as in the movie playing the next auditorium down the hall (and the one next to that), but it never breaks a sweat trying to convince you that it's anything other than what it is. The difference between "Salt" and most ludicrous trying-too-hard action movies is a matter of grace under pressure: a veteran director with a firm command (and respect for) the integrity of screen space; a stripped-down screenplay that gives you just enough exposition to create suspense and keep you guessing about what's going on (What's she doing? Why is she doing it? Does she know why she's doing it?); and an iconic leading lady whose poise is exceeded only by her stubborn resilience.

And then there's her face, which is the real subject of the film. You won't find a more thrilling moment in summer movies than the shot -- "Queen Christina" via "The Scarlet Empress" -- of Jolie's Evelyn Salt, wearing a Russian fur hat and wrap, standing on the Staten Island Ferry, with Ellis Island in the distance. The camera moves in on her from behind, causing the distant silhouette of the Statue of Liberty to sweep across the horizon from right to left, then swings around her into a breathtaking close-up profile. The whole movie is contained in that shot, from a far shot of the abstract Lady Liberty, into a close-up of another statuesque lady of questionable loyalties. (I couldn't help but think of Truffaut dollying around the stone bust of the Greek goddess with the serene, unreadable expression in "Jules and Jim" -- Jolie's Eve(lyn) being as mysterious and even more deadly than Jeanne Moreau's Catherine who, after all, was not CIA.) The shot has nothing to do with the plot; it just serves to get Salt to a rendezvous with a Russian sleeper cell. But it's a great movie-star moment, the kind of image you could imagine being built around Garbo or Dietrich or Ingrid Bergman.

saltstaten.jpg

I'm told that much has been made of Jolie gamely doing some of her own stuntwork -- and here's where the film makes exceptionally good use of invisible CGI. Jolie and her stunt double made these leaps and tumbles and falls, strapped into harnesses and suspended by cables which were then digitally removed in post-production. There's another cool image -- it has to be CGI -- from a helicopter overlooking a swarm of emergency vehicles, red and blue lights swirling, on the snowy lawn of the White House. It looks great, and it doesn't look like CGI, but I doubt they could get security clearance to actually do that shot.

The movie has a dry sense of humor about itself -- as when Salt makes an escape by jumping onto the top of one speeding truck after another... as the leaps get progressively longer and the trucks progressively smaller. It's not the smug, self-satisfied humor of a Bond movie, though; it's just built into the concept of the movie. I laughed many times during the film -- mainly with appreciation for a fillip that had been nicely executed -- and on no occasion would the filmmakers have found my laughter inappropriate.

I took great delight in a couple scenes wherein Salt lays out an array of dangerous-looking equipment in preparation for... something we'll find out about when she starts doing it. Nobody explains what these devices are; the fun comes from seeing her use them. Then we find out what they are. That's the movie's strategy almost all the way through, giving us just enough of a glimpse at what's ahead to keep us guessing about what's around the next corner. (There are two scenes at the end -- one in a bunker and another on a helicopter -- that feel like rewrites designed to throw a bone to exposition-starved viewers who haven't caught up, but by then the movie's almost over anyway.)

Noyce is a director of movies big ("Patriot Games," "A Clear and Present Danger," "The Bone Collector"), small ("Newsfront," "Rabbit-Proof Fence") and in-between ("Blind Fury," "The Quiet American") -- and his 1989 "Dead Calm," which gave 18-year-old Nicole Kidman her American breakthrough role, is one of the great psychological suspense movies, "Knife In the Water" with a "Psycho" twist.

Noyce shoots action the "old-fashioned" way: He earns it -- with coverage, an eye for detail, and those stunts I just mentioned. Rather than fussily chop things up into snatch-and-grab snippets, he builds velocity and momentum by showing the relative positions of vehicles and characters on the move. Yes, during a hot pursuit he and cinematographer Robert Elswit will occasionally compose shots so that the chasers and the chased are actually visible simultaneously in the same frame! Such technique, once considered basic storytelling craftsmanship, is now dismissed in some quarters as quaint classicism, but it's refreshing to see it done as confidently and organically as it is here.

The movie also has fun with frames-within-frames -- windows and doors and video monitors and two-way mirrors (or is that "one-way mirrors"?), sometimes arranged like Chinese boxes (which also reflects the way the story is constructed, one scene nested inside another) that allow us to watch the interplay between characters in different spaces without cutting between them. That's nice.

And "Salt" isn't just a treat for the eyes. There's a Hitchcockian (Frankenheimer-ian?) assassination set-piece at a state funeral in a cathedral, eerily and spectacularly scored to an exploded pipe organ. Talk about an inspired use of diagetic music...

I don't see the point of rehashing the story, which is designed to work only in sections, and only while they're on the screen. This isn't the kind of picture you want to go back over and piece together, looking for logic. That would be silly and a waste of time. Let's just say, "A new Manchurian Candidate is Bourne," and leave it at that. Roger Ebert (whose review is the only one I've read as I write this) summed it up perfectly: "It does all the things I can't stand in bad movies, and does them in a good one."

UPDATE (07/27/2010): More love for "Salt":

Matt Zoller Seitz, Capital:

What I saw, to my surprise and delight, was the best pure action film to come out of Hollywood in a long time, featuring Jolie's most multilayered, carefully calibrated performance in ages (though so minimalist and unassuming that inattentive critics won't notice), and action scenes so extravagantly absurd but smartly staged and executed that the movie's DVD should be placed alongside "Speed," "Die Hard" and the original "The Matrix" on a shelf marked THIS IS HOW TO DO IT.

Andrew O'Hehir, Salon:

Noyce is one of those mainstream filmmakers little noticed by the public but well loved by critics, and the reason is simple: In an age of self-inflated, portentous moviemaking, he tells stories in fluid and exciting fashion without wasting anybody's damn time. We begin with disturbing, unexplained images of Jolie-as-Salt being brutally interrogated in a North Korean prison cell -- this is the only time we see her undressed, as she's getting the crap beaten out of her -- and we're pretty much off to the races. What the hell's going on? Is she a spy or isn't she? What was she doing in North Korea, and what happened during her interrogation? These are exactly the right questions, which is not to say they'll ever be answered. [...]

This is a daring, audacious and sometimes terrifying movie -- purely as a thrill ride, it's probably the summer's best offering so far. That doesn't mean it left me feeling entirely satisfied. There's an emptiness at the soul of "Salt" -- again, meaning both the movie and the character -- that's extremely disturbing, maybe on purpose. Just as the story tries to reignite our fears of undead Commie hobgoblins, its star -- an actress who usually plays on both our prurient interest and our sympathy -- plays a woman whose public and private lives are entirely built on lies, and who seems to have no self at all. She's unstoppable, she's ferocious, she's going to fulfill her mysterious mission at all costs. But she's not particularly likable, or sexy, or even human.

[JE: If you remember the eerie scene in which Harrison Ford watches a desert massacre via satellite in "Patriot Games," you may understand where "Salt" is coming from. Spies can never be entirely human. I'd say Evelyn Salt is very sexy -- but not all the time. It's to the movie's credit that she is only sexy or "likeable" when circumstances warrant.]

Kathleen Murphy, MSN Movies:

You might say director Phillip Noyce, who made a young Jolie shine in "The Bone Collector" (1999), has turned "Salt" into a movie about being a movie star, about gorgeous Angelina Jolie dressing up and down, working up a sweat, displaying her exotic self for our voyeuristic pleasure. Jolie's our dreamgirl, the distaff version of "Inception's" Leo DiCaprio. "Salt" opens with a taste of torture-porn: North Korean sadists pouring water down the nearly naked lady's throat. (Seems odd, with the splendor of Jolie's writhing body laid out before them, that her throat would hold such allure -- but maybe I've got "Eyes Wide Shut" on my mind.)

But the scene's meant to prove this Amazon can take any punishment the movie's men can dish out -- and believe me, the physical abuse visited upon her is the stuff of comic books (WHAM! POW! CRUNCH!) or dreams. Lots of males get offed in "Salt," but it's the woman on the run whose body bleeds, bruises, absorbs blows ... extravagantly. Talk about your sado-erotic fantasy -- Jolie not only runs the maze of a low-grade generic thriller, but a movie-made gauntlet, her inhuman beauty endlessly ruined and perfectly restored. (At one point, our Manchurian Candidate is even stripped of her gender, transformed into a perversely unattractive male.)

A.O. Scott, New York Times:

Since Ms. Jolie is someone you are inclined to root for, and since she throws out a few damsel-in-distress bids for empathy amid all the smackdowns and chases, it's hard not to think of her as one of the good guys. But a lot of circumstantial evidence, like flashbacks to her childhood at the Soviet superspy Hogwarts, suggests otherwise. The movie does what it can to scramble the moral signals, but the plot twists are telegraphed even as they are camouflaged, by the casting, as well as by the writing. Mr. Schreiber and Chiwetel Ejiofor, squabbling as two C.I.A. officers chasing Salt, are skilled at suggesting potential ambiguities about their characters without distracting attention from the star.

Which is scarcely possible, in any case. Perhaps the most ridiculous scene in "Salt" has Ms. Jolie walking away unnoticed from the aftermath of a multi-vehicle smashup. I suspect this was meant as a joke, since her magnetism is the film's foundation and reason for being (even though her role was originally conceived as a vehicle for Tom Cruise). She is the prime special effect, and a reminder that even in an era of technological overkill, movie stars matter.

Stephanie Zacharek, Movieline:

Like its star, Salt is a spare and lean piece of work; it's everything a modern action movie should be, a picture made with confidence but not arrogance, one that believes so wholeheartedly in its outlandish plot twists that they come to make perfect alt-universe sense. The story -- the script is by Kurt Wimmer -- draws numerous outrageous loops, but Noyce neither dwells on them ponderously nor speeds through them in a misguided attempt to energize his audience. And he makes fine use of his star, an actress whose lanky gait is as delicious to watch as her spring-loaded leaps are. Noyce frames the movie around Jolie's finely tuned sense of movement, and yet it's her expressiveness that anchors the story emotionally: In an old-fashioned, old-Hollywood way, Noyce and his cinematographer, Robert Elswit, are wholly alive to her face and all its possibilities.

Dana Stevens, Slate:

Though "Salt" will appeal to Bourne fans, it's slicker and less gritty than those films. Also, Evelyn Salt is more inscrutable and less vulnerable than Matt Damon's Jason Bourne; every time we think she's revealed a truth about herself, it's eventually exposed as a bluff. Had a man played the lead role, which was originally written for Tom Cruise, Salt would have come off as dated and predictable. With a woman--with this woman--all the invincible-spy clichés feel fresh and fun again. Jolie gets to doctor her own wounds in a bar bathroom, scale the side of a building, leap down an elevator shaft, and--most impressively--pull off at least three successful makeovers by giving herself chic haircuts and stealing fab wardrobes on the fly.

And, again, Roger Ebert:

It's gloriously absurd. This movie has holes in it big enough to drive the whole movie through. The laws of physics seem to be suspended here the same way as in a Road Runner cartoon. Angelina Jolie runs full speed out into thin air and doesn't look down until she's in the helicopter at the end. [...]

Although "Salt" finds an ingenious way to overcome history and resurrect the Russians as movie villains, neither that nor any other elements of the plot demand analysis. It's all a hook to hang a thriller on. It's exhilarating to see a genre picture done really well.

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