In the first of the many frenetic/kinetic chase scenes sprinkled through “Salt,” CIA agent Evelyn A. Salt — accused of being a long-dormant Russian mole — dashes through the labyrinth of the agency’s D.C. offices, desperate to keep its surveillance system from tracking her flight. Having disabled various cameras in various ways, she finally peels off her panties, and drapes them over a lens.
And if Tom Cruise had been cast in the role instead of Angelina Jolie, as originally planned? Chances are the scene would have played a bit differently.
But would the movie? Not really. Based on an original screenplay by Kurt Wimmer, this neo-Cold War thriller is out of the classic good-guy-as-fugitive mold, about a CIA agent who may or may not have been a Russian plant and ends up with the entirety of the U.S. clandestine services breathing down her neck. As she tries to find her husband, and perhaps assassinate the Russian president, she’s not quite sure who or what she is. And neither are we. Which is precisely why the whole thing works.
But we’re equally in the dark regarding Ms. Jolie, upon whom this putative tent pole is propped. She may in fact be the perfect action avatar — she often looks like she popped out of a videogame, and her stardom seems to put her at an arm’s length from humanity anyway. What is she, exactly? An actress. A megacelebrity. And, apparently, Hollywood’s reigning female sex symbol. So where’s the sex? For that matter, where’s the humor? “Salt” has neither, and it seems to have become SOP for Ms. Jolie’s on-screen personae to exist on a plane unsullied by desire, laughs or passion.
There’s something rollickingly puritanical about a film like “Salt,” which is director Phillip Noyce’s first feature since the 2006 apartheid drama “Catch a Fire,” and around which the word “fun” will be bandied about. It is fun: Watching Ms. Jolie do her own acrobatics, under the direction of her longtime stunt coordinator Simon Crane, is a kick, especially in an era when our knowledge of special effects have so diluted the vicarious thrills of high-wire moviemaking. As Evelyn shoots, swings, and flying back kicks her way through legions of foul male antagonists, there may also be some subliminal/primal enhancement involved in watching a woman, rather than a man, doing what Ms. Jolie does — leaping from speeding truck to speeding truck along a dizzying freeway ramp, or clambering along the 11th-floor ledge of an apartment building, while the heads of CIA agents keep popping out of windows, a la Whack-a-Mole. Most of it defies belief, of course, and Salt’s vaulting from a moving train into a clean landing on the 51st Street subway platform is really too much. But as defined by Ms. Jolie, and by Mr. Wimmer, our title character is less superagent than superhero.
She’s also an operative with finely honed skills, unlimited daring and, like the movie itself, vague complexities: She has a strange relationship with her colleague Winter (Liev Schreiber). Her CIA superior, Peabody (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is overly eager to bring her in, dead or alive. Her little-seen husband Mike (August Diehl) couldn’t be more colorless. While she can virtually vanish at will, Salt will indeed rematerialize in a sequel — “Salt” all but sets it up. Mr. Noyce, whose best work has been in small-bore dramas (“The Quiet American,” “Rabbit-Proof Fence”) can also handle large-caliber studio thrillers (“Patriot Games”) and isn’t afraid to take inspiration where he finds it: Hitchcock’s “Notorious” and “North by Northwest” are his influences here, as are the “Bourne” films directed by Paul Greengrass, with their ADD editing and hallucinatory action. There’s a bit of gas-baggery — when the great Polish actor Daniel Olbrychski shows up at the beginning of the film, playing the nefarious Russian Orlov, we get a lengthy tutorial on the Cold War, some blather about Lee Harvey Oswald’s doppelganger having assassinated JFK and a storyline that seems, well, kind of familiar — about Russian agents living quiet lives, waiting for the day when the Motherland will crush the West. As plotlines go, it’s a lot more exciting in “Salt” than it’s been on CNN.
Call it the Emperor’s New Bedclothes: “Inception,” the first feature from director Christopher Nolan since his enormously successful “The Dark Knight,” is a movie about dreams and, alas, one that may well merit the appellation “critic proof.” Ordinarily, this term applies to films that advance a popular series (“Harry Potter,” “Twilight”) or which boast stars so enormous they can’t be deterred by conventional weapons. “Inception” isn’t either of these things. And yet it may still be impervious to criticism, simply because no one short of a NASA systems analyst will be able to articulate the plot.
But let’s try. The deeply troubled Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) provides a unique service for his corporate clients: stealing secrets from the subconscious of their competition. As will become clear, Cobb cannot return to the U.S. because something happened to his wife, the aptly named Mal (Marion Cotillard), who may be dead, or may be alive, but either way travels through Cobb’s dreamlife wreaking havoc. When the Japanese industrial magnate Saito (Ken Watanabe) asks Cobb to plant an idea in the mind of his rival, Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy), it’s an offer Cobb can’t really refuse: If he can manipulate Fischer into breaking up the company of his soon-to-be-late father (Pete Postlethwaite), it will derail the creation of the world’s only energy superpower. And a grateful Saito will get Cobb back home to the U.S., and his longed-for children.
How? Never mind that. The real question is, Where? In an effort to give his imagist impulses the broadest possible canvas, Mr. Nolan has scripted a story that travels across six countries and just as many layers of human consciousness. The problem is, we don’t know where we are most of the time. And we profoundly do not care.
Dreams and movies have a kinship as old as cinema itself. As soon as filmmakers learned about double-exposure, souls started leaving bodies; subconscious fears became flesh; the biggest bad guys were bonked on the head, if only in a poor tramp’s fantasies. Both dreams and movies provide an alternate reality, a visual adventure, full of unpredictable and sometimes Freudian implications. But “Inception” reneges on the implicit deal: By convoluting the various planes of experience, by overlapping and obscuring ostensible realities and ostensible dreams, Mr. Nolan deprives us the opportunity of investing emotionally in any of it.
He is not, it seems, a conventional narrative storyteller. That’s OK — neither is David Lynch, or a lot of other artists of cinema who are more concerned with the subliminal, suggestive powers of film. But “Inception” isn’t an experimental movie and it requires too much explanation, more than Mr. Nolan can gracefully dole out. His breakthrough feature, “Memento,” certainly was a novel, intriguing construct, with plotlines moving backwards and forwards like rows of ducks at a mental shooting gallery. But the sometimes hallucinatory images erupting out of the narrative murk of “Inception” suggest that the entire enterprise was contrived as an alibi for special-effects wizardry — and that what Mr. Nolan had in “The Dark Knight” was the perfect match for his talents: Namely, a built-in mythology. Mr. Nolan could embellish the Batman legend in the most fantastical and visceral ways and never lose his audience because they already knew very well who was who and what was what.
It may be that Mr. Nolan is purposely making his story obscure so as not to distract from his phenomenal image-making. If so, it’s a waste of costly man hours. Mr. DiCaprio, it should be said, is a wonderful actor as well as an engaging screen presence, but his choices of late seem as suspect as “Inception.” (The mysterious wife, the ephemeral kids, the fractured realities here all recall the recent “Shutter Island.”) He’s also as hampered as everyone else in the cast, needless to say, by the script. Each question asked by Cobb’s dream team — Ariadne (Ellen Page), Eames (Tom Hardy), Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) — is answered a la the official “Inception” owner’s manual: quickly, predictably, and as if it were all being made up on the fly. There is indeed an answer for everything: The sedative that doesn’t allow a dreamer to return from the dream? I’ve adjusted it, says the team pharmacologist (Dileep Rao). What happens if someone is killed in dream but is sedated at the same time? Uh, he goes to Limbo, or “unconstructed dream space.” They don’t wink at each, quite, although when Ariadne asks, late in the game, “Whose subconscious are we going into, exactly?” it may be the biggest laugh line of the summer movie season.