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Jason Wallis ‘Salt’ Jolie action flick pulls out cliches, attempts twists

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Posted: Saturday, July 31, 2010 12:00 am

Well, it was nice while it lasted. I had a lot of fun riding the cinematic high generated by Christopher Nolan’s “Inception,” and intend to see it at least a couple more times before it leaves theaters. (Some more thoughts on that film below, since last week I didn’t get a chance to delve into some finer points — and beware, because I’m not shying away from spoilers this time.)

But at some point we must wake up and return to the reality of the situation: We’re at the tail end of Summer 2010, with little to show for it and time running out for Hollywood to offer some pittance of evidence that it isn’t nearing the final stages of its devolution into an archaic, largely useless institution that years ago lost its ability to package a solid consumer product, much less produce real pop art, with any kind of consistency. ‘Cause that’s sure what it looks like.

Take “Salt.” On second thought, don’t, because it’s a prime example of major studios’ bizarre inability to render a decent product despite the hundreds of millions of dollars at their disposal. It’s not a terrible movie (a line I often hear from people in defense of dreck), but seriously: With a production budget of $110 million and probably another $30 million in marketing, with all the advertising and interviews and hype, with all the hard work and planning that went into creating a movie like “Salt,” shouldn’t we expect something better than “not terrible”? Or has the bar really been lowered that far?

I’ll hit you with it right off the bat: I don’t like Angelina Jolie. I find her neither sexy nor particularly talented, and watching her in such features as “Wanted” and “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider” has made me want to wash my eyes out with fire. She’s tolerable and even intermittently impressive when she actually acts (I’m thinking now of films like “A Mighty Heart” and “The Changeling”), but put her in an action flick and it’s like nails on a chalkboard for me.

So, I suppose the best thing I can say about “Salt” — apart from praising its status as “not terrible” — is that it made me buy Jolie as an action star, and actually had me looking forward to the scenes in which she’s in full ass-kicking mode. This could be because the action sequences (as staged by Phillip Noyce, the erratic director of movies as wildly different as “Sliver” and “The Saint,” and “The Quiet American” and “Rabbit-Proof Fence”) are at least competently filmed and edited, or it could be because the non-action scenes are just that boring and derivative. Either way, for the first time, I’m open-minded about Jolie as the femme action star du jour.

The movie has a pretty good hook (Jolie’s character, Evelyn Salt, is accused by a Russian defector of being a deep-cover spy and must go on the run — either to clear her name, or to carry out her covert mission), but after an intriguing set-up the film descends into every action movie cliché imaginable, then has the gall to expect the audience to take it straight and be surprised by its many twists and turns. (Example: I’m no rocket surgeon, but it seems to me that if a movie shows us footage of a character using a syringe to extract venom from a spider, then it is likely that said venom will show up later in the film, probably utilized as a paralyzing agent to fake someone’s death. Yet, when the inevitable happens, we’re supposed to be shocked.)

In short: Jolie fans will be pleased, but between the lackluster action set pieces, stilted dialogue, questionable supporting performances and ludicrous plotting, I think that viewers looking for their fix of summer thrills should simply — you guessed it — go see “Inception” again.

‘Inception’ revisited

Speaking of “Inception,” there were a few things I either forgot to mention last week or was unable to discuss due to spoiler concerns. A few points, then, and be advised that you should absolutely stop reading if you haven’t yet seen the film.

First, there’s the question of the ending. Is Cobb stuck in limbo? Does the top ever stop spinning? What does it all mean? I’ll offer my two cents with a question of my own: Why would Nolan have included the spinning top, and the familiarly clothed children, and the Edith Piaf song “Je Ne Regrette Rien” (which, when slowed down, forms the basis for the film’s now-famous “booming” theme — think about that one for a second), if he didn’t intend to, if not confirm, then at least strongly imply that Cobb is in fact stuck in limbo? I appreciate that, ultimately, the answer doesn’t matter, since at its core the film is less about concrete plotting and more about the process by which Cobb comes to terms with his own existence — real or imagined. But even with that in mind, wouldn’t the tease be kind of pointless if Cobb’s reclaimed life really is as hunky-dory as it seems? Just a thought.

Second, another question that’s being debated: Are people who don’t like “Inception” morons? As much as I’d like to paint them all as contemptible cretins with the IQ of a burlap sack, no, I don’t think one is necessarily an idiot for not liking “Inception.” Such a stance may betray poor taste, but provided they can offer valid reasons for their disapproval, all is fair. But ay, there’s the rub: Most of the criticisms being leveled against the film are absurd to the point of being non-sequitur. The most popular complaint is that it’s confusing, which, if you’re capable of paying attention in a film for a full 150 minutes, it is demonstrably not. Don’t even know what else to say about that.

The second major criticism is more interesting: Many people feel that the film leaves the viewer emotionally cold, that it has no emotional center on which to hang the weight of the narrative. Now, this might be a fair charge if the film was designed to function chiefly as a character-based drama, which it is clearly not. Leonardo DiCaprio does a fantastic job of bringing the tortured character of Cobb to life in a way that is relatable to the viewer, and the emotional pull created by this character and his story are more than adequate for this kind of material.

“Inception” is a concept-driven psychological thriller, a set-piece heist flick, an effects-heavy summer rollercoaster, and, like all of Nolan’s work, is primarily concerned with the process of maintaining facade. It is not, however, a Bergmanesque chamber drama, and is therefore under no obligation to provide excessive emotional weight. This is like criticizing “Toy Story 3” for its lack of philosophical profundity, or targeting “The Karate Kid” because it didn’t offer proper insight into ancient Chinese culture. It is, in a word, silly.

So, yeah, if you find genuine fault with “Inception,” by all means, speak your mind. Just be sure to have an actual criticism prepared — not this weak, borderline-incomprehensible “confusing and emotionally empty” business, because nobody’s buying what you’re selling.

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