Two new movies hit Colombo

Saturday, 20 November 2010 00:01 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Two new movies will hit Lankan theatres this week with Salt opening at Regal cinema today and Unstoppable stopping by at Majestic City from 26 November onwards. Weekend FT gives a glimpse of what both movies have to offer.

Atomic popcorn   

From start to finish, Salt is the very definition of a solid summer popcorn movie: fast, exciting, suspenseful, adrenalized -- and, most important, smart.

Also: highly implausible. When an editor of mine asked what I meant by that, I quickly ticked off a list of events in the movie that could not happen in reality (among them: At one point, Angelina Jolie leaps off a moving subway train in a tunnel, threads the needle between steel pillars and emerges unscathed). In conclusion, I said, “It’s a Hollywood action film - of course, it’s implausible.”

But that’s what movies are for: to take us out of our own lives and plunge us into a world we could never actually inhabit, to enjoy thrills while suspending disbelief. It’s not a question of plausible or implausible; it’s whether the story sweeps you up in such a way that you either don’t think about or don’t care that it stretches reality. It feels real enough to hold you rapt and not make you say, “No freakin’ way.”

So it is with Salt, in which Jolie plays Evelyn Salt, a covert CIA operative who, ostensibly, works for a petroleum company in Washington, D.C. One day, on the way out of the office, she’s called back to question a walk-in: a Soviet defector who claims to have information about a mole at the CIA.

One hitch: The double-agent he names is Evelyn Salt. Even as the Russian is escorted out, Salt is being sequestered for questioning. But she’s also quietly freaking out because she’s worried that this is a plot in which the Russians are going to go after her husband. So, given an opportunity, she slips out of the building to go find him -- which makes her an instant suspect and fugitive.

Her best friend at the agency, Ted (Liev Schreiber), refuses to believe that she’s a double-agent, but he can barely restrain Peabody (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the agent leading the charge to recapture Salt. But Salt is like a female Jason Bourne (except she knows what she’s capable of) -- and no one’s going to take her without a fight and a chase.

Salt, the defector claimed, is a sleeper agent who has been activated to murder the Russian president, who is scheduled to appear in New York to deliver the eulogy for the recently deceased former U.S. vice president. So Salt heads to New York, ostensibly to foil that plot and clear her own name.

Or does she?

To find the answer head on down to the Regal cinema hall at Fort.  


Like a lot of Tony Scott films, Unstoppable works far better than it should. It applies standard Hollywood bombast to an ostensibly true story, starting with a plausible disaster scenario and then drowning it beneath a glut of preposterous dramatic contrivances. Everything goes to 11 here. If a runaway train is cool, then a runaway train carrying toxic chemicals must be ten times as cool… and hey, how about a chemical-laden runaway train crashing into a dozen oil tanks?! If Scott could have gotten away with flinging a box full of kittens in said train’s path, he would have done so without a second thought.

 He needs to go to such lengths in order to spin the wafer-thin premise into a appreciable running time. Once he sets the train in motion, everything becomes a variation of “try to stop it” or “watch things go ‘splodey in its path.” An escalating threat provides a proper sense of tension, as well as an easy-to-establish climax and some convenient dividers between working-joe good guys and the incompetent knuckleheads making things worse. The script practically writes itself… so long as you don’t mind irony-free theatrics or a sense of the thunderous far too hysterical to be believed.

 Such is part and parcel with this director. And yet with a strong pair of performers and some yeoman stuntwork, he still succeeds in pulling it off. It goes without saying that Denzel Washington rocks the doors off this thing, playing a hardened engineer in the locomotive’s way and thus one of the few people capable of stopping it. But he gets a surprisingly strong foil in Chris Pine, playing his conductor and matching the Oscar winner step for step. Their characters come from Stock Personalities 101, with Washington the grumpy veteran and Pine the wet-behind-his-ears rookie, but the two succeed in making us care about them through sheer movie star presence. So too does Rosario Dawson earn our sympathies as the yardmaster trying to coach them to safety, completing the hat trick and providing a proper rooting interest for the audience.  

 Scott compliments that with his usual technical expertise, ratcheting back the ADD editing this time and focusing entirely on the central premise. Unstoppable borrows a page from the Duel handbook by rendering the locomotive a character in itself, its rumbling menace compounded by the periodic torture of the theater subwoofers. It gets away from its handlers in a perfectly reasonable manner: a combination of incompetence and laziness from people who don’t realize the danger until it’s too late. From there, the film settles into the railroad company’s increasingly desperate attempts to stop it and/or get various innocents out of harm’s way. Scott knows better than to resort to CG here, and the various stuntmen attempting to outrace, clear, or climb about the train produce more than their share of white-knuckle thrills.

 The big studios rattle off dozens of movies like this a year, setting most of them on automatic pilot and trusting the audience not to poke too hard at the foundations. Scott trundles out plenty of walking clichés to point fingers at, from corporate suits playing golf while their company burns to the tubby union fuckwits who create the situation in the first place to the ubiquitous Liberal Media following the disaster like jackals on the scent. And yet, that package carries a number of benefits along with the flaws: like strong pacing, charismatic stars and a willingness to get everything it can out of an admittedly simple set-up. Unstoppable takes the good along with the bad, and pulls a reliably entertaining potboiler out of the final equation. Scott has played that game for over thirty years now; we shouldn’t be surprised if he’s become rather good at it.

So stop by the Majestic City and come to your own conclusions.

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