Sunday, July 25, 2010

Pinches on Salt

Walking out of the theater, I had no intention of writing about Salt. But then I read Matt Zoller Seitz’s review at Capital. Now I can’t resist. Seitz calls the movie “the best pure action film to come out of Hollywood in a long time.” He puts its action scenes in the class of Die Hard. And he suggests that “there’s real intelligence in the writing, the directing and the performances.” I disagree on all counts. But that’s not why I feel compelled to write. Rather, I’m drawn in by Seitz’s suggestion that “inattentive critics” and “unimaginative viewers” might overlook many of Salt’s admirable qualities. Written by another critic, I might take those as fighting words, but not when they come from Matt, who many readers here know isn’t just a talented critic but also a responsible and ridiculously generous one. (I can’t think of anyone who has done more to support and encourage nonprofessional criticism, in all forms, than Seitz.) I don’t always agree with Seitz’s reviews, but I’ve read enough of his criticism to trust his motivations. And so where other critics might use words like “inattentive” and “unimaginative” to separate themselves from the pack, patting themselves on the back for their genius, I’m confident Matt is simply imploring audiences to look closer. But that’s the thing: Though, like Seitz, I went into Salt expecting it might be a “big, loud, incoherent, derivative action film without a single smart bone in its plasticized body,” I did look closely, I was attentive. That was the problem.

The closer I looked, the less Salt made any sense to me. Some of this is by design. As Seitz writes, “Kurt Wimmer’s screenplay keeps you guessing,” and Angelina Jolie’s Evelyn Salt is “a (deliberate) blank-slate character whose real mission is to keep you wondering who she is and what she’s up to.” Damn straight. Indeed, the film’s principal pleasure is our inability to pin down the film’s heroine, or villain, or heroic villain, or whatever else Salt might seem to be from one scene to the next. Trouble is, Salt’s structure withholds key pieces of information from the audience and asks us to buy into its suspense anyway, and sometimes that’s dramatically problematic. It’s one thing to watch Salt running – and there’s a lot of running in this picture – with a mistaken understanding of what she’s running to or from. It’s another thing to watch her running and have no clue what she’s trying to achieve. Seitz argues that the film’s ambiguity creates excitement, and in some cases I’d agree. But there’s a fine line between engaging curiosity and maddening aimlessness. Too often I was on the wrong side of that line, not wondering, “Hmm, what is she up to?” so much as, “What’s her motivation?” And that question repeatedly led to this one: “Why do I care?”

Maybe this is an issue of subjectivity. Maybe my reaction and Matt’s demonstrate how two people can watch the same thing, essentially agree on what’s happening and have two entirely opposite takes on its effect. Or maybe Matt is correct and I wasn’t attentive enough and I missed something. So, in lieu of a traditional review, what follows are several questions I had while watching Salt. Individually, none of these questions spoils the movie. Collectively, they prevented me from participating in any of the film’s intended adrenaline rush. Beware: super duper spoilers ahead.

Section 1: The (Initial) Escape
The film’s biggest weakness is its lengthy beginning, precisely because it inspires so many questions that make it difficult to understand Salt or identify with her – making it difficult to know whether we’re cheering for her or against her, creating ambivalence instead of mystery. (Doubt will be used effectively later on, but there can be no switcheroo on Salt if we’re never given a clear idea of who she is in the first place.) In the beginning, Orlov (Daniel Olbrychski), a Russian mastermind of the Cold War, shows up at a CIA field office in Washington, DC, and promptly announces that Evelyn Salt is a Russian spy. Soon after, Orlov overpowers and kills two CIA guys in an elevator and then walks out the front door of the CIA office and onto the street. Almost simultaneously, Salt, supposedly fearing for the safety of her husband, decides to escape the CIA office, too. This leads to the following questions:

* Why on earth is the CIA more concerned about catching Salt, who has a proven reputation of serving her country, than about looking for the guy they know to be a Russian Cold War bad guy who just killed two CIA agents?

* How is it that Orlov was able to wander out of the building in the first place, given its multiple security cameras and Star Wars-esque blast doors?

* Once Salt is located on a particular floor, why wouldn’t the guys in the control room seal the entire floor immediately, rather than closing each blast door each time Salt approaches a potential way out? (This suggests the CIA is inept, which lessens the thrill.)

* Once Salt escapes the building, how does the CIA not beat her to her apartment, where they know she’s heading? (See previous note on ineptness.)

* After twice pursuing Salt with weapons drawn (first at the CIA office, then at her apartment), and having apparently determined that Salt is a more dangerous fugitive than Orlov, why are the dozen-or-so CIA types who converge on Salt near the overpass so unwilling to fire their weapons?

* Why does Salt allow herself to be surrounded before she leaps off the overpass?

* Why does Angelina Jolie think that if she pumps her arms until her fists rise above her head that it will make her seem fast? Wait, that’s a different kind of question. Continuing …

* Most important of all: Knowing what we know at the time, why are we supposed to believe that the highly trained Salt thinks that the best way to protect her husband is to risk getting killed by breaking out of the CIA office, including manufacturing a weapon that she fires at her coworkers? Put another way, does her escape make sense as it’s happening?

Section 2: The Funeral
So everyone ends up in New York for the funeral of the U.S. Vice President, which will be attended by the U.S. President and also the Russian President. Inexplicably, the Russian President (1) arrives late and (2) will be delivering the eulogy (huh?), but never mind. It’s known that someone, perhaps even Salt, is going to attempt to assassinate the Russian Prez. Security is intense. As Salt begins infiltrating the church, we try to decide if she’s doing so to kill the president of Russia or to prevent him from being killed. This leads to the following questions:

* What does Salt achieve by shooting the cables attached to the billows that power the church’s mighty pipe organ, I mean other announcing her presence before she’s ready to spring her trap (trigger her explosive device), thus giving security a reason to converge on the one person rumored to be a target, thus jeopardizing her own clever scheme?

* Having said that, why doesn’t security converge on the Russian President?

* After the explosion, Salt is approached by the one U.S. agent who is absofuckinglutely sure she’s guilty: Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Peabody. As he approaches Salt through the cloud of debris he finds her with her gun raised in his direction as she stands above the Russian president, lying on a pile of rubble, stiff as a board at her feet, having apparently been shot. Tell me, if this isn’t enough of an excuse for Peabody to fire his weapon at Salt, what would it take? Am I supposed to believe that Peabody would risk his own life by not shooting at Salt and, conversely, that Salt would risk her own life by betting on Peabody not to shoot? And if Salt is so confident about Peabody, why is her gun pointed his direction in a threatening manner that might change is mind?

Section 3: The Reunion
Salt voluntarily goes into custody and then escapes … again. She snatches a Ruskie-esque fur hat (wink, wink) and then walks to a metal scrap yard where Orlav is hanging out watching CNN in HD. This leads to the following questions:

* Do you think Orlav has Comcast or Verizon Fios? Only kidding. More importantly …

* Wait, so Salt and Orlav definitely know each other and, more than that, she knows where he hangs out and he knows that she got married? So, riddle me this: What genius devised the plan in which Orlav would voluntarily walk into a CIA office, implicate Russia’s top secret agent (who is on his side!) thus risking her life and his in order to … what … spring her into action? If Orlav needed to test Salt’s loyalty, couldn’t he have kidnapped her husband and then shot him while she watched? Oh, wait! He does that anyway!

Section 4: The White House
Blah, blah, blah, Salt ends up at the White House. We figure the U.S. President is in danger, but who knows. There’s something about a bunker and Salt needing to be there. After a whole bunch of fighting and shooting, Salt and Liev Schreiber’s Ted remain upright, both of them separated by some sturdy bulletproof glass. One might wonder why bulletproof glass would be necessary several stories underneath the White House in the President’s bunker, because if an enemy ever gets inside the bunker’s tank-heavy front door, it stands to reason that the President is pretty much screwed, but I digress. Bodies lying around them, Salt and Ted gaze into one another’s eyes. This leads to the following questions:

* Am I the only one who snickered imagining how this scene would have played if Tom Cruise had accepted the role of Salt as originally planned? Yeah, yeah, Ted was probably a Tess in the Tom Cruise version. Still, I couldn’t help but picture Cruise and Schreiber staring into one another’s eyes as Gustavo Santaolalla’s Brokeback Mountain score strummed in the background. Back to the important questions …

* Salt eventually prevents nuclear war by pulling the plug on the nuke computer (seriously). Didn’t Frank Drebin do that once? Simple but effective. So, what was Salt trying to do about 10 seconds earlier, when she fought off Ted momentarily and actually sat down at the computer as if to type. Was she trying to quit the missile-launch program with a CRTL-ALT-DELETE command or was she going to update her relationship status on Facebook?

Closing Thoughts
As I said at the outset: Individually, none of the above questions prevented me from enjoying Salt. I’d also like to point out that nowhere above do I complain about some of the film’s far-out action scenes, including several leaps by Salt onto moving vehicles. I can roll with that. As Seitz says in his review, quoting a friend, the action scenes achieve “Maximum Ludicrousity,” and that can be fun. That’s why I’m not put off by the numerous scenes in which Jolie's Salt kicks ass in hand-to-hand combat, however I am baffled that Seitz first compares Salt to James Bond, Jason Bourne, or “those stony-faced ass-kickers that Steven Seagal used to play,” and then argues that Salt isn’t “one of those condescending faux-feminist action movies in which a tiny woman is depicted as the physical equal of a huge man.” (I mean, at one point Salt knocks a guy down just by throwing a gun at him.) And I sure don’t know how Stephanie Zacharek calls Salt free of “choppy, rapid-fire cutting.” (Compared to the Bourne extreme, sure. Otherwise …) But those quibbles are beside the point.

If it isn’t clear already, Seitz’s praise for Salt, while extreme, is also heavily (and necessarily) qualified. If you haven’t yet, go read his full review. Then someone please tell me if I was being too attentive (is that possible?) or not attentive enough. Compared to the mindfuck that is Inception, Salt is ridiculously simple, yet all throughout I found myself thinking, “I don’t get it.”


The Film Doctor said...

Very funny, Jason. I too have been confounded by Seitz's positive review, making me wonder if I missed something, or perhaps we should be more generous in just enjoying the film's action. I enjoyed the action scenes, but not analyzing afterwards.

I like your detailed questioning of Salt. One quick answer comes to mind for several of your questions: because it makes for a better scene. Orlov gives Salt away to make it more challenging for her to follow through with her mission. The blast doors are way more fun if they slam shut on her one by one. Salt allows herself to be surrounded to build up the intensity of the scene, to make it look more hopeless.

Later, the filmmakers contrive the entire funeral situation just to make Salt's participation all the more incredible. Everything happens in the movie for maximum hyped effect, but it gets annoying by the time things reach the White House. Whatever remnants of plausibility gets lost by then, and I'm surprised that the president didn't have a big doomsday button for blowing up the world at his disposal.

My major problem with Salt lies in the moments when it asks us to take things seriously--when Salt remembers a weeping scene with her husband fondly, or gets tortured by the North Koreans, and so on. Are we supposed to compare the film to A Mighty Heart? Wanted, in contrast, never pretended to be any more than a cartoon.

Kelli Marshall said...

You write, "The closer I looked, the less SALT made any sense to me. [...] Trouble is, Salt’s structure withholds key pieces of information from the audience and asks us to buy into its suspense anyway, and sometimes that’s dramatically problematic."

That statement (and what follows in your review) reminds me of an excerpt from Roger Ebert who, like Zoller Seitz, praises the movie -- but who also, like you, locates in it similar faults: "SALT is a damn fine thriller. [...] It's [also] 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."

In short, it IS possible for us to enjoy a film like SALT without attempting to justify how much "real intelligence [is] in the writing," yes?

Richard Bellamy said...

It is possible to enjoy a thriller that disdains all logic IF the action sequences are gripping and different. I'm fine with that. I can forgive a film its lack of logic, if I am gripped. (I did so last year with Knowing.) But while this film eschews logic and believability, it provides nothing as compensation. The action is bland and unoriginal. We've seen heroes leap from a building and break the fall by landing on top of a truck. That Salt goes from truck to truck to truck does not pump up my adrenaline. We've seen so much of this before.

Kelli Marshall said...

Ah, but have we seen the main character strangle her partner to death with the chain of her handcuffs while hanging off a banister? =)

Jason Bellamy said...

Thanks for the thoughts, all.

FilmDr: I'd agree that the scene with the North Koreans felt a little bit off. But, amazingly enough, I didn't have any problems with the tone of Salt, which reminded me of a throwback to the Rambo '80s. I just think that's a difficult scene to do effectively to start a film.

Kelli: In short, it IS possible for us to enjoy a film like SALT without attempting to justify how much "real intelligence [is] in the writing," yes?

Absolutely! Sometimes it might be because, as Hokahey says, something 'else' dazzles us that makes the logic of it all moot. Or maybe, for reasons that can't ever be properly explain, we just 'fall' for a movie, the same way we fall for people. I certainly wouldn't want to argue away the enjoyment someone felt watching Salt (be it Seitz, Ebert, anybody). But I was struck that while Seitz felt the mysteriousness is compelling, I thought that early on it just felt illogical. It's funny: By the end of the film, the mysteriousness of the early-going (everything pre-New York) actually makes sense, because at that point the film has established Salt as elusive. But as that early portion was happening, it just seemed uneven, and that prevented me from seeing the action scenes as anything more than what FilmDr suggests they are: basic devices.

Jason Bellamy said...

Ah, but have we seen the main character strangle her partner to death with the chain of her handcuffs while hanging off a banister? =)

Ha! Yeah, that was a new one! Did anyone think of Silence of the Lambs when they saw that? Her crucifixion-esque pose reminded me of the way Lecter leaves one of the guards for some reason. Maybe it was the bloody white shirt.

Jason Bellamy said...

Oh, while we're here, I thought of something else I wanted to ask:

So what exactly is the story with Salt? I came away thinking it could be either of the following:

1) Salt was a Russian spy all along. She planned to take action on Day X, or whatever they call it, whenever she got word. But then she fell in love and that had her wanting to retire from it all (US and Russia). So when Orlav exposes her, she takes it as a threat to her husband and tries to save him (in retrospect, that indeed really is what she's trying to do, not escape because she's been exposed). Then once she realizes her husband has been kidnapped, she knows her only chance to save him is to give the impression that she's carrying out her role in the plot. If her husband isn't killed, she just kills all of Orlav's guys and it's over (maybe? right?). But instead he's killed and now she's pissed and so she decides to see it through to the end so she can kill every last Russian who fucked her love life.

2) Pretty much everything I said above, except that perhaps we're supposed to believe that independent of her falling in love with her German husband that she fell in love with America, and if not for Orlav exposing her she's have continued to serve her new country. Then, after the exposure, she kicks ass on its behalf.

Is one of those right? I don't think it really matters (and I don't mean that as an insult to the movie; I also don't think it matters what the truth is about Cobb at the end of Inception). I'm just curious what others thought.

Jason Bellamy said...
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Richard Bellamy said...

Kelli - In Rob Roy Liam Neeson puts a loop from the rope that binds him around a bad guy's neck and jumps off a bridge to throttle him.

But, I have to say that moment in Salt was the film's only surprising moment. You are right. It showed how vicious she could be. Primal!

The Film Doctor said...

I think of the basic story as: regardless of her mysterious allegiances, Salt appears to be bad, but actually she is good (much like Tom Cruise's role in Knight and Day), or at least the American audience thinks she's ultimately good even though she casually massacres a bunch of Russian agents. I wonder what the Russians would think of her character.

Matthew said...

Hey, Jason--

I don't usually bait other critics like that, but I wrote that review after having read many reviews that were dismissive or simply, well, inattentive -- reviews that seemed to presume that because it's a ludicrous action movie and Jolie has little dialogue, there's no craft or imagination going on, and it can be written off with glib one-liners.

I probably came off sounding like a dick, and if that's the case I'm sorry. But this was one of those cases where I could have used the carrot but opted for the stick instead. I believe there's a tremendous amount of verve, wit and emotion in this movie, and in Jolie's performance specifically (she has very little dialogue; the performance is almost all silent expressions and looks; yet each of these usually operates on two levels, in that there's one level that's pitched at another character within the scene, and a second level intended for the viewer -- a tell that might only seem like a tell after the scene is over).

FilmDr's "because it makes for a better scene" is the justification for a lot of the flourishes, including that bit with the ominous pipe organ which precedes Salt's attack on the Russian premier. When I heard that horror-film chord interrupting the solemn funeral service, I laughed out loud, and I can state with certainty that I was supposed to. Before Salt establishes herself (tactically) as the ultimately bad guy, she gives herself a little bad guy musical flourish.

The movie asks us to take Salt's feelings seriously, not the film itself. It's the same mentality that a really good comic book film might take towards a nearly invulnerable hero, or that a horror film might take towards its rampaging monster. I thought her history and psychology were quite plausibly laid out. There is nothing psychologically inconsistent or confusing about anything she does in the movie. Within the context of an action film so fast and preposterous that it borders, as I said on the review, on sci-fi (those Russian sleeper agents might as well have been cyborgs, or Martians that hatched from eggs), a hell of a lot of the movie makes sense and has been thought through.

I was quite moved by the moment leading up to the barge massacre, when they shoot her beloved husband in front of her and she keeps her cool and acts as if it's no big deal. This is the moment when her conditioning by Orlov reaches its peak, and she demonstrates mastery over her mentor. Orlov buys her stony-faced reaction and lets his guard down, which gives Salt a chance to kill him with a broken bottle and then off everybody else in the barge (a scene that is set up as a surprise attack; if they saw it coming she would not have succeeded).

Love, love, love this movie. It's brains are in its eyes, if you know what I mean.

Matthew said...

One additional thought, regarding how the pieces of Salt's personality and history are filled in via flashbacks: I normally consider this type of structure a bit of a cheat, too, because it denies audiences the chance to test themselves against the movie and reach the right conclusion their own. But here I think it's totally justified. We start the film having as much information about Salt as her colleagues in the CIA and NSA do. And this is a woman who has kept her entire life private, who has lived inside her own head and been more or less a puppet, a vessel to be filled with ideology and training. Nobody, including her husband, really knows the real Salt, and maybe she doesn't, either. The sparing, terse, somewhat oblique flashbacks reflect this quite well, I think. We're being granted access to what's really going on inside the head of a Manchurian Candidate/Jason Bourne/Rambo kind of character -- but we're not being allowed to get too close, because of who she is.

There's integrity to every decision this movie makes, and given the sort of film it is, that's unusual and worth praising.

And how great was it when she escapes from the police motorcade, then steals herself a hat and wrap that makes her look like a glamorous Russian celebrity when she shows up at the barge? It's another flourish like that bit with the pipe organ at the vice president's funeral. It's showmanship, with a raised eyebrow.

Uncle Gustav said...

Matt's temporary (?) insanity baffled me too. I'm an admitted Angelina junkie, but even I can't sing Salt's praises, though I do think it's equally as mediocre as Die Hard. For shits and giggles, you can read my review here.

That Fuzzy Bastard said...

Haven't seen SALT yet (though MZS has me thinking maybe I should after all). But on a slightly more general note:

I think it's a mistake to talk as though narrative plausibility and "real intelligence in the writing" are the same thing. Just about every good film, and certainly every good action film, is chock-full of coincidences, implausible behavior, and major physical impossibilities. The question is not Is it plausible, it's Do we buy it? Articulating what exactly that question means is another, bigger question entirely.

The Film Doctor said...
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The Film Doctor said...

What a pleasure to hear from Mr. Seitz. It appears to me that Matthew enjoyed Salt in much the same way that I enjoyed much of Wanted, i.e. ironically. But still one wonders: what of the torture porn at the beginning? Is that really called for? What of the conventional aspects--the movie's strong resemblance to Knight and Day, the tired device of resurrecting cold war themes, and the many severe implausibilities, such as Salt tazing a cop to accelerate the police car multiple times, or all of the doomsday maneuvers in the war room? Isn't there an incongruity between these cheesy devices and the psychological depth, wit, and verve that Matthew finds in the film? I still think my reaction was still colored by my pleasure in Inception. In comparison, Salt seemed like an annoyingly conventional thriller.

Jason Bellamy said...

Matt: Honestly, you didn't come off like a dick because I know your writing personality well enough to know how you intended it. (Likewise, I would hope I didn't come off like a dick using your review to debate some points.)

I believe there's a tremendous amount of verve, wit and emotion in this movie, and in Jolie's performance specifically...

Yeah, this just proves to me that we saw the same movie, and yet different movies. Salt found you early, and once it did you found wit and charm in it. (Fair enough.) I'm not sure what I saw it as, and that probably explains everything. It wasn't immediately apparent to me where the fun was, and so I missed out on a lot of it. (And, no, the sloppy flashbacks didn't do a lot to convince me I was seeing a carefully manufactured film.) A perfect example, of course, would be the actual swiping of the hat: I now see how you see and enjoyed it, as a Bond-esque gesture. And that makes sense. It's just not at all the way the scene played to me watching it. (Gee, maybe I really was inattentive.)

While we're here, I will give you the scene with the husband. And I must say that I wish the scene with the pipe organ played like "showmanship" to me when I saw it. Alas ...

Flickhead: I'll check out your review, for sure!

TFB: I think it's a mistake to talk as though narrative plausibility and "real intelligence in the writing" are the same thing. Just about every good film, and certainly every good action film, is chock-full of coincidences, implausible behavior, and major physical impossibilities. The question is not Is it plausible, it's Do we buy it?

I agree entirely. And that's actually the point I was trying to make. It's not realism I'm after, it's that within-context, disbelief-suspended, gut-level "is this right?" All the questions I list above aren't meant to be daggers to the film's screenplay so much as indications of all the times I was taken out of the movie trying to figure out if it knew what it was doing, who it was dealing with, what it was after. So, building off your comment, we could even come to the end and decide that retrospectively it all makes perfect sense (I don't agree, but let's pretend). Even if that were the case, it wouldn't give me back all that time when I was unsure. Matt, clearly, felt utterly comfortable that he was in good hands. I didn't. And though I went in expecting very little, I was hopeful at the same time. I wanted to go with this movie and I couldn't.

FilmDr: Salt seemed like an annoyingly conventional thriller. See, I'd agree with you there. But I wouldn't go so far as to call the beginning "torture porn." This might be an area where Matt and I see eye to eye, as the violence felt intended for Chuck Norris or Sly Stallone, and instead it was put upon Jolie, who handles it fine. I'm still not sure I would have started the film that way, but I didn't think it was over the top or necessarily preventative of an adrenaline rush.

Great continued thoughts, all. It's always awesome to have some give and take and see the film through others' eyes.

Matthew said...

Flickhead: "equally mediocre as Die Hard?" That film's the "Midsummer Night's Dream" of crash-and-burn R-rated action, my man.

Kelli Marshall said...

But still one wonders: what of the torture porn at the beginning? Is that really called for?

I'm still not sure if this is "torture porn," but aside from parts of the storyline, which bored me a bit at times (sorry, Matt!), this is perhaps the only scene that bothered me in SALT. After all, it is one of the ONLY times in the movie in which Jolie's body is put on display in a conventional fashion. As I mentioned to Jason on Twitter over the weekend, the remainder of the time her body is not objectified or fetishized in any way (as it usually is). This is good. This is a step forward.

But again, that opening scene annoyed me -- just as much as the one at the end of ALIEN in which Ripley COMPLETELY UNNECESSARILY strips down to her tiny panties or the one at the end of SILENCE OF THE LAMBS in which Clarice becomes the typical horror-film victim seen through the (night-goggled) eyes of Buffalo Bill.

Matthew said...

That torture scene didn't feel exploitative to me. In fact it felt a bit sanitized. CIA spies imprisoned in North Korea spend a great deal of time completely naked, the better to humiliate them, and if the prisoner is an attractive woman, the odds of them letting her keep her bra and panties are slim to none.

And I wouldn't call it "torture porn," just a torture scene. It was brief, and there to establish the extremity of what she went through over a time period that a subsequent title establishes as ten years. The wicker chair scene in "Casino Royale" is much more excessive than this.

Matthew said...

Sorry, I meant to type two years.

Kelli Marshall said...

Yeah, I don't think it's "torture porn" either; but still, the same effect could've been accomplished had she been wearing tattered, dirty clothes, don't you think?

Jason Bellamy said...

Ripley COMPLETELY UNNECESSARILY strips down to her tiny panties...

Kelli, are you kidding? Didn't it look hot on that ship? And wasn't the air conditioner broken? I thought it was completely justified. :)

Kelli Marshall said...

Sure. Yeah. Whatever. =)

Daniel said...

Speaking of panties, if you won't concede the opening scene was gratuitous, how would you (Kelli and Matt) explain the undergarment removal for the purpose of covering the security camera? Was there no other option? Or did that "make for a better scene"?

I found it completely exploitative (though successful - the men in the audience let out a collectively creepy groan) and I can say with some confidence that it wasn't in the screenplay when Cruise was still attached to the film.

But my problems with Salt were legion, more than Jason even outlines here. From the banal (how did she pay for the cab following the escape?/why would her handcuff chain be two feet long?) to the bulky (exactly how did that citizen-spy exchange work?/what happened to the original Lee Harvey?), I was awash in questions and I just couldn't let myself go. I don't know why I'm able to do it for some movies and not others, but I think a major factor is the writing, and more specifically the attempts at comedy in the screenplay.

Die Hard is, intentionally and unintentionally, an action comedy. At no point is the viewer baited into expecting a United 93-style terrorist thriller. So the laughs go down easily, whether they're the result of a ridiculous stunt or wickedly delivered dialogue. Salt, meanwhile, isn't presented as a light-hearted affair. The opening scene primes us for a dark and gritty thriller. That never develops, but the point is that it's not nearly as easy to settle into Salt as a kooky action thrill-ride like Die Hard or for that matter Knight and Day. The action in the latter was just as outlandish as in Salt, but then I wasn't made to feel like I should be taking anything in Knight and Day seriously.

Matt, I know you said the comedy came through more for you (e.g., the organ scene), and I can't take anything away from your experience. I just think the film was presented in a way that made the attempts at comedy fall flat for most viewers. We ended up laughing at it, not with it.

That's enough rambling, but I think the underlying tone of Salt - completely separate from the plot holes or the action or the lapses in logic - may have played a larger role than I realized until this discussion.

(On an entirely unrelated note, thank you, Matt, for your review of Teza earlier this year.)

Jason Bellamy said...

More thoughts later, when I have more time.

For now, can I just say that I love that a conversation on this blog wandered until a comment could justifiably begin: "Speaking of panties ..."

This kills me.

Kelli Marshall said...

Hi, Daniel -- well, I tweeted this about Salt's underwear-removal before I saw the movie:

As you can tell, I was expecting the worst, so when I say that I didn't think that scene was nearly as gratuitous as I thought it would be, it's probably because I was anticipating something far more lewd rather than, ehem, resourceful.

And, wow, what's up with the audience you screened the movie with? Sounds creepy!

Daniel said...

I don't know, it was a packed promo screening and most of the single males were right in the 18-35 demographic that was probably hoping for something as lewd as you were expecting. That it was something Evelyn Salt did in that place and time is what really baffles me.

The only explanation I can think of is that she painstakingly measured exactly how much fire retardant she had expelled to disarm the other cameras, and exactly how much was required to make her rocket launcher. And so, not being able to spare any more fire retardant or use any other item at her disposal on that floor, the only remaining way to block the last camera was to take off her panties.

Jason Bellamy said...

Though I agree with Kelli that the scene is mild, it's Daniel's last comment (tongue and cheek though it is) that underlines why the scene doesn't quite work: because up until that point we've seen her obscure camera views a different way. That is why it seems out of character, because it seems random to switch. Had she never brandished the fire extinguisher, that scene would have played just fine. OR, even if she had brandished the fire extinguisher, they could have played that scene up as more of a "Fuck you" (or, more to the point, "Eat me"; no offense intended) to the guys watching in the control room. It's this latter interpretation that I would argue is the best way to defend the scene, but I don't think that's the way the scene plays ... the spirit isn't there.

jim emerson said...

I think Matt knocked this one out of the park:

"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."

That opening torture scene, while it made me cringe, also teases and mocks the audience's more lurid expectations -- then undermines them because Salt emerges bruised and swollen. The film acknowledges pain. We know she has a very high threshold, and the scene with the Russians and her husband wouldn't have the power it does if we hadn't seen what she'd already been through.

As for the flashbacks Matt mentions in his comments above, I also got the impression we were experiencing them along with her, as these deeply buried memories seeped back into her consciousness, "Manchurian"-style.

Jason Bellamy said...

Wow. First Matt, now Jim. I'm going to have to spin my top to make sure I'm not dreaming.

Seriously, though, those are good observations, particularly about the effect of the torture scene on the later scene with the husband (which even detractors like me agree is an awesome moment).

I'm not so sure I can buy the subversion argument, though. It sounds correct on paper, but there's such a long line of similarly constructed scenes in which barely-dressed women are somehow abused in which the partial nudity lends to the luridness that I'm not sure what would separate this scene from that pack, particularly because we recognize it as a torture scene from the very beginning, if my memory is correct, so there's nothing much to subvert. Had the scene instead began by panning up Jolie's barely-covered body like a Victoria's Secret ad only to find her bruised and bloody face, one instant before someone punched her, that would have been subversion.

Jason Bellamy said...

One more thing: This isn't the perfect analogy by any means, but my reaction to Salt vs. Matt's (and Jim's) reminds me a little bit of Hitchcock's favorite analogy about suspense: how it's much more interesting to watch the guys having lunch knowing there's a bomb under the table than just waiting for the explosion. Again, it's an imperfect analogy, but clearly I watched without feeling the presence of the bomb (I just saw a bunch of mostly empty explosions), while Matt somehow spotted the bomb, figuratively speaking, and felt the suspense.

All of that said, the assurance of Matt, and now Jim, has me determined to give Salt another look. Being perfectly honest, it's still impossible for me to imagine finding Salt as exhilarating as Die Hard, for instance (a film, by the way, which for all its ludicrousity makes an amazing amount of sense as it unfolds and even upon reflection), but maybe I'll spot something I missed.

I won't get to this until the weekend at the earliest, but stay tuned!

Uncle Gustav said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

I found myself able to "hand wave" most of the issues mentioned here; however; there were two related instances which I could not ignore.

#1 The first time she is captured, her hands are cuffed in front? This would never happen.

#2 The second time she is captured, her hands are cuffed behind, but they used leg cuffs with 24" chain?

Oh, and those "computer noises" from the CIA PC, as they searched for Orlov - give me a break, Holywood...

Anonymous said...

I found myself able to "hand wave" most of the issues mentioned here; however; there were two related instances which I could not ignore.

#1 The first time she is captured, her hands are cuffed in front? This would never happen.

#2 The second time she is captured, her hands are cuffed behind, but they used leg cuffs with 24" chain?

Oh, and those "computer noises" from the CIA PC, as they searched for Orlov - give me a break, Holywood...

Craig said...

It wasn't immediately apparent to me where the fun was, and so I missed out on a lot of it.

I had no interest in seeing "Salt" until the demarcation line drawn here among some of my favorite critics prompted me out of sheer curiosity. Now having seen the movie, I think Jason's remark above resonates the best for me. It's too serious to be much fun yet too absurd to take seriously. Yet it is interesting that many critics who disliked "Inception" are rallying around "Salt," building it up (directly or indirectly) as an antidote to the former. I didn't care for either film, though I think each has something to offer the other. ("Salt" could have used more rules and internal logic; "Inception," more... uh, panties.)

Nor did "Salt" "keep me guessing," I'm afraid. This being a potential franchise, the chances of Jolie playing the bad guy were zilch. Which may be why I also guessed the real villain in about five seconds. (All I could think of was The Manchurian Mole.)

Great review, Jason, and very funny too.

Jason Bellamy said...

Anon: Of my above complaints, I think the most damaging would be the beginning section, just because there are so many questions (and not the good kind, in my opinion) that I couldn't settle in for the ride. In retrospect, the only one I can't hand-wave is the one about the inexplicableness of Orlav's genius plan to risk his imprisonment and Salt's by exposing her in the middle of the CIA office. Dumb.

Craig: Yet it is interesting that many critics who disliked "Inception" are rallying around "Salt," building it up (directly or indirectly) as an antidote to the former.

I didn't see that when I wrote it. But as I've caught up on more reading about both films, there does seem to be a connection. Like you, I don't want to suggest that it's a direct or malicious cause and effect. In other words, I'm not suggesting that Matt and Jim, for example, are pulling an Armond and praising this film as a "fuck you" to Inception fans. Not at all. But I think it's quite likely, and quite fair, that seeing the kind of filmmaking that leaves them feeling empty in Inception caused them to latch on to elements of Salt and perhaps appreciate those elements beyond the level they might have had the film been released in November. Again, this isn't implying disingenuousness. Their reactions are their reactions. I believe they're sincere, same as Inception fans could feel uninspired by Salt because it's not enough like that film.

Mark said...

Just catching up on this thread following a bizarre triple-feature at the multiplex yesterday: Salt bracketed by The Kids Are All Right and Dinner for Schmucks.

I can't add much to this great discussion except that I noticed Jolie's extreme arm-pumping running style too and immediately thought of Cruise. I always figured that was just the way Cruise runs, but maybe they actually write it into the script!

What I'd really like to see is a mashup recasting of the movies I saw yesterday: maybe Julianne Moore as Salt, Jolie sharing a bed with Annette Bening and doofus Steve Carell as ... oh, never mind.

Anonymous said...

@Kelli Marshall

when i was 14 and watching this movie, the first 90% of it had me on edge, the tension and the action was pretty awesome, but then when she left in the escape ship and started to relax and wind down for that hibernation pod thing, and then started to take off her clothes, i got this unbelievably huge boner

the boner was getting really good and i was looking forward to seeing more of her undressing, but then *BAM* the alien pops out.

i won't dwell too long into the physiology of what happened, but that huge adrenaline rush from being scared while at the same time having an erection... it was EPIC.

so far, nothing in the hundreds of movies i've seen since that one has ever matched that exquisite thrill

Anonymous said...

or the fact that she "kill" the russian president and she is taken into custody by NYPD, i think in real life this will be the job of FBI or CIA or secret service, but NYPD??!?