Phillip Noyce | 104 mins | Blu-ray | 15 / PG-13
Angelina Jolie takes on a role originally earmarked for Tom Cruise in this Bourne-ish spy thriller from screenwriter Kurt Wimmer (Law Abiding Citizen, the Total Recall remake; writer/director of Equilibrium, Ultraviolet) and director Phillip Noyce (Patriot Games, Clear and Present Danger, The Saint, The Bone Collector).
I list all of those previous projects because it might give you some idea of the calibre involved here — i.e. solid, but perhaps not exceptional. That’s more or less what Salt represents. It offers a handful of moderately exciting action sequences — a multi-vehicle highway escape is the best — and a plot with an engaging mystery eked out through good twists and developments.
Said plot sees Jolie as Evelyn Salt, a US spy accused of being a Russian sleeper who will assassinate a high-profile Russian at a high-profile US funeral in a few days. (In truth, I forget who the Russian is and who the funeral is for. I think they’re the President and Vice-President, respectively. Really, such things are immaterial.) Naturally, she goes on the run… to prove her name, presumably, or is it because she is indeed out to complete said mission?
This is Salt’s mystery, and this is one of its strong points. The plot developments are well-paced throughout, developing and shifting our expectations rather than stretching it all for a glut of final act reveals. In this regard it goes places you might not expect from a mainstream Hollywood thriller. For starters, you expect the funeral-set assassination to eventually be the film’s climax, no doubt revealing our heroine isn’t a Russian spy as she unmasks the real killer. But that occurs at the halfway point, spinning the film off in new directions. To say more would spoil one of the film’s strongest elements: that, as I said, it has twists and follows storylines you wouldn’t expect in a Hollywood summer blockbuster.
But now I am going to digress into spoiler territory, because on Blu-ray Salt comes in a choice of three cuts. Excessive? Yes. One version is basically a glorified way of showcasing a deleted scene. But, actually, these are more interesting than most extended cuts — not merely slight extensions, there are genuine impactful changes to be found here. And that’s what I’m going to natter about now, complete with spoilers. Just so you know. (The final paragraph, incidentally, is spoiler-free.)
The three cuts, then, are: Theatrical (100 minutes — this was trimmed for the UK to make 12A, but is apparently uncut on disc); Director’s Cut (the one I viewed, this is 4 minutes 5 seconds longer); and an Extended Cut (1 minute 5 seconds longer than the Theatrical). The latter is based on the Director’s Cut and I’ll come to it in a minute. The differences between the Theatrical and Director’s cuts are numerous, but mainly amount to some extra character beats (including more flashbacks to Salt’s childhood) and violence — more blood; seeing people get hit rather than just seeing Salt firing; the President is killed rather than just knocked out; plus a very different death for Salt’s husband (again, more on this in a moment). Plus there’s a voiceover ending too, which in my opinion sets up the sequel even more than the Theatrical version does, with a blatant cliffhanger and suggested plot direction. My regular comparison site Movie-Censorship.com disagrees, but… they’re wrong. So there.
As I mentioned above, the Extended Cut seems to have started with the Director’s Cut, then stripped out all references to the death of Orlov (Salt’s spymaster villain, killed around halfway through in both the Theatrical and Director’s versions) in order to include an alternate ending in which Salt travels to Russia to kill him. Additionally, the President doesn’t die in the Extended Cut, presumably to help provide a more conclusive ending — the Extended Cut is the only one that doesn’t suggest a sequel.
One of the key differences — tonally, at least — is the murder of Salt’s husband, which occurs in a very different way in the alternate cuts. In the theatrical version, she walks around a corner and he’s instantly shot. She has to control her emotions so as not to give herself away. In the other versions, however, she’s presented with him in a chamber and given a choice to save him — except trying to save him would give her away, so she’s forced to watch, blank-faced, as he slowly drowns. Salt sacrifices him for the greater good; he dies seeing her cold emotionless face. Ouch. By comparison, the theatrical cut’s blunt gunshot is much softer.
The extended version plays on this nicely with its alternate ending: Salt grieves for her husband during her post-climax interview with Chiwetel Ejiofor’s investigator, even though he reassures her she did it for the greater good (just in case you didn’t understand that when it happened). Then she escapes and toddles off to Russia to kill Orlov. Fundamentally I’m not a fan of this alternate ending — I like that she takes her revenge on the boat-load of people when she does — but it does have one fairly major plus point, I think: she kills Orlov by tying him to a stone and pushing him into the river; she watches him drown, just as he made her watch her husband drown — Noyce’s choice of camera angles emphasises this comparison — but whereas before tears formed, now she is genuinely stony faced. It’s a fitting form of revenge; more fitting, really, than just stabbing him with a broken bottle, as she does in the two other cuts. And this is the real advantage of the DVD era: if the filmmakers considered another option, now we can see it, and in cases like this choose our preference. Though it seems clear, by its inclusion in both the theatrical and director’s cuts, that Noyce preferred the instant-revenge option.
In conclusion, Salt isn’t really the kind of film that massively deserves multiple versions — it’s a divertingly fun action-thriller, not much more, but for that I think it merits a watch by fans of the genre. Of all the versions my preference is for the Director’s Cut — it packs a better punch than the tamed-down Theatrical, and while it loses the nice revenge parallel of the Extended’s alternate ending, I think it’s overall the most coherent experience.
Salt begins on Sky Movies Premiere tonight at 8pm, and continues daily until Thursday 7th July. I expect it’ll be the theatrical cut though.
If you’re interested in a full catalogue of differences between the versions, Movie-Censorship.com have three (unusually imperfect, sadly) comparisons to offer: between the Theatrical and Extended, Theatrical and Director’s Cut, and Extended and Director’s Cut.