Who Is Salt?

John "Dirty Harry" Nolte is one of the few film critics out there who have consistently criticized 21st century Hollywood's tendency to avoid making movies about today's enemies - i.e. Islamists, eco-terrorists, goofball "revolutionaries" like Hugo Chavez - preferring instead to make tedious Important Statements about how America, or at least the neo-con segment of the population, is the Real Enemy. Now, Nolte adds Angelina Jolie's Salt to the catalogue

Well-paced, with an excellent supporting performance from Liev Schreiber (who, if Hollywood had a lick of sense, would be cast as the next Jack Ryan), and even patriotic in spots, “Salt” delivers a fine old time at the movies. But it does feel like a relic, like something you watched on HBO a zillion times during the summer of ’83. That’s not necessarily a negative. But it does take something away from what could’ve felt like a more vital, urgent and relevant story.

We currently live in a world packed with very real dangers courtesy of Islamic terrorism, North Korea, Iran and Marxists who with the help of Oliver Stone are sowing seeds of anti-Americanism South of the Border. And still, though set in the present, “Salt” chooses Russians for its villains. Stranger still, they aren’t even present-day Russians but rather Soviet-era villains who want the current Russian president assassinated because of a lingering, two decade-old grudge regarding d├ętente and the loss of the Cold War.

As a film fan willing to suspend as much disbelief as humanly possible, choosing Soviet-era Communists is a bridge too far. The decision to avoid portraying America’s smorgasbord of real antagonists as the film’s fictional ones is such a self-conscious choice that it hangs over the entire movie, especially after a brief opening sequence set in a North Korean prison that ends up feeling like an anachronism. This creative decision probably has something to do with race. After all, Soviets still piqued over glasnost perfectly fit the mold of Hollywood’s favorite villains: old white guys.

First of all, if you haven't seen Salt, you're really missing out on a serious, professional grade action film that combines the best elements of The Fugitive, The Bourne Identity, The Boys From Brazil, and those paranoid Seventies movies like The Parallax View. And forget all the tabloid stuff about Shiloh and Brad Pitt. Angelina Jolie absolutely carries this film, creating a near mythical action hero out of the tough, enigmatic Eve Salt. Like The Fugitive the movie is one long chase, with Salt's loyalty and motivation always in doubt. She is a CIA agent who goes on the lam after a Russian defector fingers her as a mole that is part of a secret KGB sleeper cell activated after decades spent infiltrating the West. Salt constantly challenges the audience's expectations; we see her doing all sorts of "bad" things - beating up NYC cops, assassinating the president of Russia, refusing the flinch at the death of a loved one - yet we root for her because we can't quite believe that Salt really is an Evil Commie Agent. Like The Bourne Identity the action is two-fisted and believable, even as it becomes increasingly wild, building to an incredible climax in the White House Situation Room. Great stuff, and definitely worth seeing in the theater if you can.

So, now Nolte wants us to somehow make Salt into a "contemporary" film with jihadists or what have you? That might work except for one thing. You need to be able to have Angelina Jolie play a Muslim. And not just any Muslim: she has to be one that was raised from birth to infiltrate the US as a carefully trained sleeper agent whose handlers have invested literally decades of time and expense in getting Jolie and her colleagues to the point where they can try to destroy the US. Is that something that Osama Bin Laden can cook up in a cave? No. You would need a state sponsor like Iran or Saudi Arabia for that, which means Jolie would need to be an Arab or a Persian. Are you seeing a problem, yet, or do you need to watch A Mighty Heart again?

The fact is that Jolie would not be able to play a "contemporary" villain because she simply doesn't look like one. (I refuse to consider Caucasian "Muslims" like Chechens or Bosnians). And without Jolie, Salt wouldn't be nearly as good. She doesn't just carry the film; she's in practically every scene. Whatever she's doing, she does it with a ton of confidence and charisma that only the true greats - I'm thinking John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Sean Connery, Gregory Peck, etc. - could manage. Even when she's not on-screen, someone is looking for her or talking about her. Jolie is Salt and it's damn hard to imagine what other female American actress could have played the role with as much star power and brio. Hell, there aren't even many men who could have handled it. (you have to shake your head at the thought of Jolie sharing a bed with someone who stars in movies with names like Babel or The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Benjamin Button?? What the hell is that?!)

No, the fact is that a movie should entertain before it does anything else, and Salt accomplishes that worthy goal with gusto. I'll let Syriana fans get their rocks off with "contemporary reasonance."

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