Salt is a senseless blast. As I think back, I have no clue why the guy at the beginning did the thing with the … or why Salt—that’s the name of the fugitive CIA agent played by Angelina Jolie—would need to … or why the villain could turn out to be… It’s impossible, impossible, to parse. But what Salt lacks in coherence it makes up in centrifugal force. You might not know why Salt is doing what she’s doing, but you know while you’re watching that Jolie knows. The actress’s certainty is diabolical.
It has to be, since she’s acting in a vacuum. After Salt is fingered as a Russian sleeper agent by a defector (Daniel Olbrychski) who then … never mind, it makes no sense … she has to escape from her erstwhile CIA colleagues. Much of Salt is Salt running away as Liev Schreiber and Chiwetel Ejiofor yell, “Salt! Stop! Salt!” She jumps off an overpass and onto a passing truck and then rolls over and kicks a motorcyclist off his bike and weaves on the bike between a jam-up of cars while the bullets zing past her. “Salt! Salt! Stop!” She’ll never stop. She’s on the hunt for her kidnapped German husband (August Diehl), an authority on spiders. Did he fall for her spidery grace, her cool disregard of gravity, her fanged smile? No, he fell for the pre-envenomed child below the surface. Now Salt will blow away anyone who stands between her and reclaiming that dewy innocence.
Director Phillip Noyce and writer Kurt Wimmer must have ticked off the heroes to be bested: Bond, Bourne, Bauer … Who’s missing? MacGyver! Watch Salt use household chemicals to turn a fire extinguisher into a rocket launcher. Watch her go where 007 would fear to tread: the women’s lav, where she tapes up a wound with a maxi pad. Salt strides down a hotel corridor, plucks an outfit off a rack of dry-cleaned clothes, opens the door to her suite, takes in the rooms—all in one fluid motion, without a wasted beat. That’s the movie: brisk, efficient, forward-ho even when the plot does loop-de-loops, fluid even when the action is smash-and-bash.
Noyce knows there’s nothing as potent as Jolie’s face, which can turn in an instant from open and tremulous to hard and mocking. We never stop trying to read it. This isn’t a high-camp performance, like her insouciant Lara Croft. Salt is drawn and stricken, emotionally off balance at her most physically poised. We don’t know what the hell she’s up to, but we root for her. After a shocking act of violence, James Newton Howard’s music goes from plaintive to syncopated, and a female choir begins to chant. It sounded to me like “Salt! Salt! Salt! Salt!” That’s what I wanted it to be, anyway. Because I wanted to sing along.
The week’s second Russki spy picture, Christian Carion’s Farewell (originally L’Affaire Farewell), is less incandescent but far more enlightening. I’m shocked that I didn’t know the story of Vladimir Vetrov (code name: Farewell), a Soviet colonel who, in 1981 and ’82, turned over to French intelligence the identities of enough spies to deal the KGB a near-fatal blow—and ultimately help Ronald Reagan claim credit for winning the war on Communism. Vetrov is here called Sergei Grigoriev and played by Serbian director Emir Kusturica as a rumpled grouch with a fondness for haute French culture and a conviction that the Soviet Union has been so poisoned by fools and blackguards that the only hope is sweeping the board clean and beginning again. To keep the KGB off the scent, the French make Grigoriev’s Moscow contact a timid, rather neurotic bureaucrat, Pierre Froment (played by French director Guillaume Canet), and the pair’s uneasy relationship gives this deliberate, underpopulated movie an unexpected fullness. As children scramble up a statue of Lenin, Grigoriev proclaims that he’s risking his life for his son’s future, but his son disdains him for being out of touch and keeping a mistress. Froment is on tenterhooks at the prospect of imperiling his own family. As both men lie to loved ones to keep their exchange alive, the tension builds and becomes unbearable.
In the great cast, Fred Ward plays Reagan as not just engaged but swaggering and overexcitable—a fun revisionist performance. But this is Kusturica’s movie. Grigoriev’s once-chiseled face is sagging, gone to seed, and he can’t seem to settle on a smirk or a scowl, on cynicism or righteous fury. Farewell gives Grigoriev a much more sentimental last act than his real-life counterpart, who stabbed his mistress in a parked car and killed a KGB colleague. But Kusturica is so brooding and subtle that a turn like that would seem … movie-ish.