Friday, 3 September 2010

Salt; you have to move faster than the speed of plot

Salt is one of those movies which falls apart if you take a moment to think about it. I know what the producers were thinking. Cast Angelina Jolie, and the primitive apemen in the cinema will be too busy not drowning in their own drool to notice that absolutely nothing on the screen makes any more sense than George Bush the lesser trying to explain convertible debentures during a hurricane. I mean, that's almost a plan. It's certainly a much better plan than the one we're supposed to think is driving the plot of Salt. No wonder Tom Cruise got detached from the project. On the one hand, even Scientology makes more sense than the plot of Salt, and on the other hand, lets not mince words; Tom is not going to distract us mouthbreathers in anything like the way that Angelina would. So when Tom and the producers parted ways, I imagine that the combined sighs of relief were picked up by distant planets as some kind of freak weather pattern.

Anyhooo. Angelina is, as I've had cause to mention in the past, not exactly an actress, but is curiously compelling in action movies precisely because she's a performer at her best in rapid motion. Which let me coast through the first act of Salt on a wave of amused good will. The first act has a wonderful extended chase sequence which has Jolie break out of a CIA HQ building and then outrun her pursuers through Washington. The tempo of the action keeps building until finally, with one bound, our heroine is free. It's a very well executed setpiece, and as it drew to a close I was thinking, yeah, this is what an action movie ought to have. Clever set-up, and then get moving real fast. I was feeling pretty darned optimistic at this point in the proceedings. it didn't hurt that early on, Angelina took her knickers off and threw them at a video camera. That must have taken my mind off the plot problems for a whole five minutes.

It's all downhill from there, I'm delighted to report. Our intro into this movie is based on the idea that Jolie's Evelyn Salt is a loyal CIA spy who's been wrongfully accused of being a longterm plant by the KGB. And shock twist, it turns it that's just what she is. Her trainer has activated the whole cadre of long term sleepers and turned them lose to destabilise the USA and bring Russia back to its glory days. The trainer's supposedly a genius mastermind and manipulator who's devoted his whole life to training up a generation of kids and planting them in positions where they could worm their way to the top. Now this is a wonderfully ruthless and completely insane scheme which only a genius mastermind could possibly hope to carry off. Which leaves the audience sitting there with their WTF faces on when the first move in the grand design is to blow the cover of his best agent. Now we see why the Soviet Union lost the Cold War. Their genius masterminds were functionally leotarded.

You have to take a giant step back from the bonkers plot to see how insane it is. Genius Mastermind - I've forgotten his name under the general heading of forgetting to care about stupid people - has decided to mess the US up by framing the US intelligence community for assassinating some weak kneed moderate clown who's now President of Russia. And luckily, he's got a key asset in the CIA who he can simply ask to do the job. So does he ring her up and ask if she's got a moment in her busy schedule? Maybe persuade her to knock off the guy in an afternoon off from her CIA job? Or does he go to door number 2 and walk in off the street to CIA HQ and accuse her of being a mole so that she has to go on the run and everyone in the US intelligence community thinks she's a Russian Plant - and then ask her to do the needful wacking. You're right, he picks door number 2. Because given the choice between a slam dunk easy assassination by a trusted functionary who even her employers believe is a loyal CIA staffer, or a ball-breakingly impossible assassination against impossible odds by someone who everyone thinks is a ringer, the second way to go is the smart move when you want to frame the CIA and kill your opponent. Yeah, you can kind of see why we're not all in the Communist Party these days.

Amazingly, it punches right through the bottom of even that barrel when they kick it up a notch and reveal that the even bigger plot involves hijacking the US nuclear deterrent and using it to blow up Tehran and Mecca. I love the way movie makers always assume that this will somehow set the world on fire and mobilise an unstoppable tidal wave of anti-US hatred. Guys, that constituency is hating the US full time as it is, and even if a couple of nukes somehow kicked it up a notch, the angry millions are on the other side of the planet and frankly, not all that well organised. There's no prospect at all of them making real trouble for the US. The US spends more on being heavily armed than every other country on the planet put together and it's as much as it can do to maintain one war on the other side of the globe. What chance does the Arab world have of bringing the war to the US? And the idea that most muslims would be in any way bothered to hear about Tehran getting vaporised? For most Arab countries, Tehran's nearly as high up their day dream target list as Tel Aviv. But hey, it's Hollywood. The whole sand box is just one culture and one homogenous population.

So's Russia, at least in Salt world. Russians are just mean. Salt goes through the whole movie beating the snot out of people, but because she's really secretly (for god knows what reason) the good guy, she doesn't actually kill them. The Russians - wow, they just kill the daylights out of everyone they meet. Forty rounds rapid into centre body mass is the Russian version of hi and a handshake. They don't feel they've got to know people properly unless they've kicked them in the throat with a bootknife and then emptied a handgun into their heads to stop the twitching as they bleed out. I always find this kind of toss genuinely hard to put up with. On the one hand, folks are just folks. It's not emotionally plausible that one group can kill without a qualm and that another group - their functional equivalents in a culture not really all that different - are squeamish. And on the other hand, it's a bunch of bollocks that you can hammer seven bells out of someone in hand to hand combat and incapacitate them and they're still somehow fundamentally OK. Most of the people Salt knocks down and out in the course of the movie would be dead or permanently disabled if you swung them around like that in real life. in 1982 I got hit by a car that was probably doing less than 30 miles an hour and I'm never going to be able to run more than a hundred metres again. I'm damned lucky it was my leg that took the hit and not my spine. Real life; nothing like as forgiving as the movies.

In and among this, we have to buy into the notion that the White House has a bunker buried eight stories below it. Leaving to one side the question of quite how you'd put a bunker under the White House without anyone noticing that you were excavating it, Washington's a swamp. It's enough of a challenge to stop the White House sinking any further into it without digging a hole under it. That bugged me a bit. I mean, it's a nonsensical film, I shouldn't be getting distracted by that sort of thing. The problem is that if the plot's nonsensical, you have to move very very fast with the action scenes and everything else to overcome that, and Salt does not manage to outrun its own preposterousness. The movie keeps slowing down, and every time it does, the stupid catches up. It's a shame, because as long as the movie is in rapid motion, Jolie's a thing of wonder; it's only when she stops to talk that the disbelief sets in.

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