Thursday, October 28, 2010

Dueling Movie Reviews: RED versus Salt

Over recent weeks, I've seen two movies with striking similarities, so I'm reviewing them both at once. This also helps to catch up on my enormous movie review backlog.

Salt stars Angelina Jolie as a CIA agent accused of being a Russian spy. Rather than allow herself to be taken into custody, she goes rogue, exhibiting superhero-level abilities in the process. An excellent supporting cast includes Liev Schreiber and Chiwetel Ejiofor.

RED (technically, it's "Red," but the title is revealed to be an acronym), stars Bruce Willis as a retired CIA agent marked for assassination. Fighting back, he assembles a rogue team, exhibiting almost superhero-level abilities in the process. The astounding supporting cast includes Helen Mirren, Morgan Freeman, Mary-Louise Parker, John Malkovich, Brian Cox, and Karl Urban.

So, you can see why I'd place these two movies side-by-side.
More...I really enjoyed Salt, don't get me wrong, but on a long list of things that RED did right, Salt did all of them wrong, and the primary thing is, RED had fun.

Salt is a really slick action movie, and Jolie as Salt does action really well, but it is ponderously serious. It's absolutely grave the way the CIA setting is established, including Salt's relationship with her boss (Schreiber). The whole thing, really, is treated as an action-adventure drama, made more dramatic by the presence of Serious Actors who are Not Allowed to Smile. And all this would be great, I love that kind of movie, except that in truth, this is not a serious movie at all, it's simply a movie that takes itself seriously.

RED, by contrast, knows it's a comic book, knows there's a silly component to it, and kicks back and relaxes. It does this in a way that enhances the plot points. If you're going to take the whole assassination thing seriously, then you have to take the deaths seriously, but if you make sure to portray every murder and attempted murder in a manner that emulates a cartoon, then you're allowing the audience to enjoy the mayhem. (And remember, I absolutely enjoyed the mayhem in both films.)

More importantly, the seriousness of the script confine's Salt's actors, whereas the looser RED script allows the talent to play. RED is basically Space Cowboys with killers instead of astronauts. The old farts are having fun. There's not a lot of wit; the script sort of backs away and lets the hams ham it up. Fun!

I really enjoyed Angelina Jolie's super-spy shtick. Arthur was annoyed by it; she's too super-human and the back story explaining it really isn't a justification. In fact, the whole back story is full of holes, which is important since it's clearly designed to establish a series. The ending ("Here Comes the Sequel!") was egregious in that regard. In thinking it over, I decided that James Bond started out relatively low-key, great but not super in his earliest films, and only gained strength and abilities as audience expectations increased; he expanded with the series. But Salt starts at the peak that Bond achieved after ten pictures—where can she go from here?

So, RED definitely wins this duel. A couple of months after seeing Salt, I remember almost nothing about it. I expect that, given a couple of months, the same will be true for RED. In that regard, it's a really a matter of taste; do you want a dark stupid movie or a light stupid movie? As stupid movies go, they're both pretty good.

Cross versus post