Salt takes you to action movie film school.
Actually I am the worst person to review Salt because it is always my pleasure to give away every awesome plot detail and ruin it for everyone who would ever see it. However, I will restrain myself because I actually enjoyed this movie a lot. For those writing and/or directing your action flick screenplays, this is a fantastic teaching tool on how to do things right. Let’s look at some of the lessons.
First up: Plot. Nowadays, it is tough to place international terror believably in the high-tech militarized world that we live in, and that means you are going to have to go back in history a bit to bring forward a nemesis that will give your lead (who you wrote as super awesome) pause for worry. Can this evil plan be stopped? Once you sell that, then the rest is breeze. You can add all the plot twists you want and this movie has more twists than: a) a double helix DNA strand b) triple black diamond ski run c) a really twisty thing. I’m too sleepy for a killer simile here.
This movie goes back to the 60’s for its grab; Russian sleeper cell agents trained as children in US culture – (watching “The Brady Bunch” according to the flashback) waiting for the time to switch them from high ranking US gov’t officials to elite soviet killers that will destroy the world so Russia can “rise from the ashes.” (even though presently Russia has 600 of the approximately 1000 billionaires in the world – where do they think they stand globally?) You think that would fall apart on screen, but here you buy it because of lesson TWO:
When Directing, bon’t beat it over the head. Phillip Noyce directs these plot revealing moments not so much as lumber to frame action sequences but more as relevant information to solve this crime. Take a cue from all the procedurals out there these days, each piece of the story is a clue, not a pain in the ass. It could have been easy for Mr. Noyce to push all the “chatty scenes” aside for the “trailer fodder” that would sell the flick, and then panic in post production a re-shoot all those scenes to “emphasize the plot”. Instead, it is given its due attention and that balances the movie very nicely. I suspect that may be also to the fact that he cast Liev Schreiber as his co-star. Which is lesson THREE.
Casting. Leiv is from the theatre world and so he takes what little is written for him a fills out his moments with the gravity needed to keep Miss Jolie from flying out into ether of unbelieve-ablity. As for Ms Jolie, she is probably the only actress who could pull off this role, except maybe Mila Jolovich but then the Russian sleeper cell plot would totally be given away, just like I just did by mentioning it in this review. So Spoiler Alert in reverse. Old habits are hard to resist for me.
A lot has been made that this part was originally written for a male lead. But now that I think about it, ALL action spies should be thin waif-like women because when you jump off an overpass onto moving trucks to escape it makes sense that the only way to survive is if you weigh a pilates-tight 96 lbs. Sterioded muscle-heads would break every bone they had due to simple Newtonian physics. This kind of logic is more satisfying and believable than those crap BOURNE movies. (really, lost your memory from a bullet in your LOWER BACK? Please)
Then writing. So often writers confuse the reviews with the mission. When someone wants a script that is “NON STOP ACTION” that doesn’t mean there is never a moment where a character takes a break to think. In fact, an easy way to break up your action is to have your character flashback to earlier memories of the childhood that led to whatever is the ACTION/CRISIS at the moment. Here, it is used as a very effective way to determine where each of the twists are going.
Also, writers, you don’t have to “amp up the action” by making everything EXPLODE all the time. This movie, for all its action, has relatively few explosions – maybe three or four and all of them happen because EXPLOSIVES are used, not because a couple of cars crash into each other. And that is because of the smart move which is Lesson number FIVE:
Make the stunt co-ordinator second unit director! That’s it! Brilliant! 2nd unit director normally has to cover all the stuff that isn’t “the acting” – Running, crashing, big set pieces that are rigged for explosions and fire. And the lead Stunt Co-ordinator is usually figuring out the how. Like when a script says “Two guards are overtaken in a narrow hallway” it is someone’s job to go – “okay, you grab the gun of the first guy and shoot the second guy through his armpit, etc.” So if those two jobs are the same guy, then you are sure that all the action is covered, and all your coverage has action!
Here that guy is Simon Crane, who has been Ms Jolie’s stunt co-ordinator since Tomb Raider. He makes just running for the subway have the same amount of excitement as escaping from the CIA headquarters by improvising a bazooka from office furniture and cleaning supplies (note to self: take a closer look at my Office Depot catalogue)
And sure enough, all the fights and chases are so well covered and cut together that you never lost and the pace never lags or rushes. Every car crash, fist fight, jump from moving train, has all the shots to tell the story – nothing extra, nothing missing. And the shaky hand held camera brings you into the action instead of hiding what you forgot to shoot; which is often an indicator that you don’t have all the footage you need to make the scene make sense. (I guess that is lesson SIX – but that is not a lesson anyone should learn, really)
Now do all that in 100 minutes and you got yourself an action movie that will it least spawn two if not three more. There endth the lessons.
—Dean Haglund, who is making a Chill Pak just for you.