Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5
Actors and actresses earn their paycheck with the ability to serve a story, in big ways or small, sometimes with the need to portray a character with nuance and depth, sometimes with a need for a kind of gritty physicality.
Angelina Jolie, for all the focus on her personal life and political leanings, is an actress who has grown to the point where she is versatile enough to move back and forth on the performing register. (Her previous two roles in Wanted and The Changeling demonstrate this point.)
Still looking fantastic at 35, and surprisingly so after going brunette here, Jolie must have been the only candidate for this role as the titular rogue CIA agent, Eveline Salt, who is accused of being a Russian counter-spy on a mission to murder the Russian and US leaders.
She subsumes a hell-bent steeliness within her placid demeanour as she is forced to run, Bourne-like, from the American authorities, who wish to shoot first before asking questions, while considering the prospect that she could indeed be one of those sleeper agents whose ‘programming’ kicks in only years later, a scenario played out in The Manchurian Candidate.
The complexities of the plot, its revelations, red herrings and multiple twists and turns, which in hindsight seem elementary, prevent me from revealing much about the plotline, except that the film does turn back the clock to utilise old-school Cold War-era manoeuvrings in its story.
Australian filmmaker Phillip Noyce, who had directed a fresher-faced Jolie in 1999’s The Bone Collector, is a veteran of espionage actioners, having helmed Harrison Ford’s excellent Jack Ryan movies (Patriot Games, Clear and Present Danger) and Val Kilmer’s rather less illustrious The Saint.
Here, he gives Jolie enough to work with even as she is required by the film’s breathless pace to leap from one dangerous situation into another.
In between breaking out of handcuffs and a police car during a tense road sequence, leaping onto moving vehicles, and busting through supposedly secure locations (where even a militant grain of salt could not ostensibly enter), Jolie displays great emotional range in conveying Salt’s anguish.
Just like Matt Damon’s Bourne character, she becomes something of a phantom – albeit one capable of deadly force – once she is forcibly set adrift from her organisation and her newly established stable home life. Unlike the cold, gritty and grounded Bourne tales, however, Kurt Wimmer and Brian Helgeland’s script at times strains credibility.
While Salt’s ingenuity is never in doubt – maybe as an alleged double-agent, she has had more or better training than most spies? – she often gets out of sticky situations with pure brute force and firepower, something that her attempted captors never seem to come to grips with.
Be that as it may, credit goes to Jolie for making this reviewer suspend his disbelief and go with the flow. Her humanity and admirable doggedness makes Salt an eminently watchable action heroine.
Reliable character actors Liev Schreiber (The Manchurian Candidate) and Chiwetel Ejifor (Serenity) channel characters they have played before in this film, the former Salt’s boss with a questionable agenda and the latter an agent who specialises in hunting spies gone bad.
Regardless of whether you view the plot, after viewing, as satisfactory or insubstantial, one thing’s for sure: this is Jolie’s movie, and she shows you exactly why she is a star. You cannot take your eyes off her, and she makes it worth your while, running like mad while also zipping through the gears in her acting repertoire.
In a decent film, it’s a fine performance that requires no extra seasoning.
About Shu Chiang
Yong Shu Chiang, otherwise known as SC, is a freelance editor and writer. He reviewed movies for Juice magazine when he was in college, and was the resident film reviewer for Today Newspaper from 2003 to 2005. He has also reviewed movies for Prime Time Morning on Channel NewsAsia.