Middle Row, Centre: Salt is the New Flavour of the Month

It looks like perhaps the season of sequels has passed, to be replaced by the season of spy thrillers.

After Knight and Day and Inception, which had a semi-spy theme, along comes Angelina Jolie’s latest starring vehicle, Salt.

Salt is the kind of film that could have been made in 1975. It could not have been made after 1991, however, for it trots out the old Soviet Union as the evil empire, and exploits the theme to an extent that would have made Ronald Reagan proud.

Evelyn Salt is a highly-trained and intelligent CIA operative. As the film opens, we see her being released from a North Korean prison, the beneficiary of a prisoner exchange, after having been subjected to severe torture. Some time later, she is requested to interview a recent Russian defector.

Astonishingly, he makes the accusation that his interviewer is, herself, a Russian spy.

Thus begins an amazing and increasingly far-fetched drama of intrigue, involving the usual round of car chases, smash-’em-ups, shootings and dramatic, violent escapes that we have come to expect from films of this ilk.

It looks as if Angelina, or at least her stunt double, went to the same stunt school as Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz did, for her exploits are remarkably similar to those exhibited in Knight and Day. They range from displaying lightning-fast martial arts skills, to jumping from the top of one moving vehicle to another, and even to an escape by motorcycle.

Interestingly, Cruise was first considered for the role now played by Jolie.

Salt is an absorbing enough representation of its genre. At 100 minutes long, it doesn’t overtire us with long dragged-out shootings and explosions, and carries through with enough dramatic tension to keep us involved in the plot without being bored.

Veteran Australian action thriller director Philip Noyes keeps a tight rein on the film in a highly satisfying manner.

It’s largely a one-woman show for Jolie, with the possible exception of the Russian defector Orlov, played by veteran Polish actor Daniel Olbrychski, who manages to convey a sinister presence throughout the film.

Liev Schreiber also turns in a creditable performance as a fellow CIA agent. So does August Diehl, who last played a Nazi major in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, as Salt’s trusting husband.

We hardly get to judge Jolie’s acting ability in this film, however, for she’s seldom in one place long enough to utter much dialogue between scenes of combating adversaries and escaping from their clutches with great bombast.

The puzzling thing about Salt is why it appears on the scene at this particular historic juncture. It raises up from the ideological grave all of the old clichés about the Soviet Union — unswerving obedience to the instruments of the state, children brainwashed right from their early days in kindergarten, a ruthless intelligence apparatus. Memories of The Manchurian Candidate readily come to mind.

The recent apprehension of 10 Russian spies in the US, allegedly “sleeper agents”, and their exchange for two American spies, constitutes a lucky break for the film’s believability. Otherwise, Salt could be easily dismissed as an obsolete piece of propaganda, designed to scare us out of our wits about the menace of the Soviet juggernaut, as so many of its predecessors were during the era of the Cold War.

So the question remains, why now?

Who knows, really, whether Hollywood will continue to be a barometer of the temper of the times.

Salt plays at the Qwanlin Cinema at 7 and 9 p.m., and is rated PG for violence and coarse language.

Brian Eaton is a cinema buff who reviews current films and writes on other film-related topics on a regular basis.

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