Far be it from me to disagree with two thoughtful, articulate critics (Roger Ebert and Matthew Zoller Seitz) who obviously took a strong liking to the new film, Salt, but their praise of the film seems wildly overrated. Reading their reviews got my hopes up. And then my hopes were slowly stripped from me.
Don't get me wrong; Salt is entertaining and it does a good job of adequately keeping you guessing how events will play out, though you never really doubt Angelina Jolie's character, Evelyn Salt, will be on the side of righteousness at the end. After all, this is the summertime and the film stars one of the most popular actresses in Hollywood in a PG-13 rated spy thriller. Do you really believe the studio would pay Angelina upwards of 20 million dollars to be a sexy Russian spy who actually murders the President of the United States by the conclusion? If you do, I have some BP stock to sell you.
Speaking of Jolie, she doesn't so much do great work as get in a great work out: leaping from moving vehicle to moving vehicle, bursting out of an in-flight helicopter before plummeting into chilly waters below, bouncing off walls while delivering lethal kicks and punches to her assailants, free climbing her apartment building while dodging her adversaries, jumping from metal beam to metal beam while descending an elevator shaft. This woman can do it all. The film's director, Phllip Noyce, does his best to ground the film although it eventually gets carried away on the wings of absurdity. By the end, Evelyn Salt has single handily infiltrated the most secure, remote location within the WHITE HOUSE! while killing/disarming too many men to count. Take 1/3 amnesiac killing machine Jason Bourne, mix in 1/3 patriotic-to-the-core Rambo (the cartoonish one of numbers 2 and 3), and a final splash of sexy, yet lethal, Mrs. Smith, and you have Evelyn Salt.
Both Ebert and Zoller Seitz praised Noyce's direction; Zoller Seitz went so far to exclaim the film the "best pure action film to come out of Hollywood in a long time." I saw nothing of the sort. Noyce does a competent job; the action moves along crisply and his sense of spatial relations is generally true. The film isn't hacked to pieces by Stuart Bard so a sense of coherence is retained within all the pandemonium that breaks out even if the film's set pieces become increasingly more ludicrous. But I never got that giddy, elated, tingling-from-head-to-toe action movie high Zoller Seitz calls "maximum ludicrosity." The action is fun to watch (especially the initial foot/car chase that sets Salt running), but I'd be hard pressed to fire Salt up on DVD to study its action scenes the way I would the bank robbery in Michael Mann's Heat or the restaurant shootout in John Woo's Hard Boiled or the climactic shoot-out in the Wachowski brothers' The Matrix ("We need guns. More guns") or the House of Blue Leaves battle in Tarantino's Kill BIll Volume 1 or . . . I could go on and on. Those films had me rocking back and forth with my eyes popping out of my head like a cartoon silently saying, "Holy shit is this fucking awesome!" Granted, those aren't "pure" action films, but neither is Salt; it is a hybrid action-spy thriller, and none of the action approaches such levels of incredulity which balloon into pure cinematic bliss. I guess we've really lowered the bar when competence in our directors (often insultingly labeled as "workman like") is viewed as the exception rather than the rule.
The minor twist is the fact the film stars Angelina Jolie. Originally written for a man (Tom Cruise), the film makes the small statement that gender roles within Hollywood action porn can be flip-flopped and not suffer cinematically nor at the box office (although I would be hard pressed to think of another female who could play the role with such carnality, athleticism, and perverse pleasure at all the violence). Female action stars are not exactly new, but for these type of big-budget Hollywood multi-million dollar pictures they are. Sure, we've had Charlies' Angels, but those characters were presented to be tongue-in-cheek. Sarah Connor's ripped biceps served notice in Terminator 2, but she still was only a key supporting character. Ellen Ripley in Aliens comes closest, but Weaver and Cameron made her into an actual character, not a character like Salt who's stripped of fat, sinewed down to lean and economical emotional muscle that produces a simple context ("My husband, I've got to help my husband.") with which keeps the action hurtling along on a crash course with the next extravgant action sequence.
Should we herald this as promising? That the ladies now get to join this particular men's team? Movies like Salt seem more to follow the maxim "If you can't beat them, join them." But was this a team ever worth joining? It's extremely rare these days to wow audiences any more with pure, unfiltered kinetic action regardless of the main character's gender; you need the right alchemy of gripping plot, intriguing characters, and a sense of auteurship that exposes the audience to something that feels fresh even if it's being subtly recycled. I feel fine with women partaking in these roles, but I still would prefer to see real flesh and blood heroines like Ree from Winter's Bone. Meanwhile, we'll have to make due with Salt in terms of action-oriented cinema until the next true action star (male or female) comes along.