Knight and Day Vs. Salt - An Action Movie Compare the Market

Which spy movie came in from the cold and which was left high and dry?

In a time of International conflict the action genre has seen a phenomenal resurgence on the Silver and LCD screens. Months after 9-11 saw the launch of the television drama that would redefine the genre, that drama was 24 and since then things have only got better. The first decade of the twenty-first century saw the return of Sylvester Stallone with the action packed Rambo with an up to date conflict in Burma and his own special brand of negotiation, let alone the largest action cast assembled in The Expendables. Matt Damon proved that you don’t have to be a big guy to be formidable force with The Bourne Identity, Supremacy and Ultimatum. Wise cracking detective John McLean (Bruce Willis) goes up against cyber terrorists with the infrastructure of the United States of America on the line in Die Hard 4.0 (Live Free or Die Hard in the U.S) and not to be outdone Jean-Claude Van Damme released the thoughtful arthouse like offering of JCVD which was part heist movie part Being John Malkovich. Also along the way was Alias with Jennifer Garner, The Unit written by David Mamet and a handful of extremely enjoyable offerings from Tony Scott (Man on Fire, Domino and Unstoppable).

This year passed saw two offerings that should have carried the name of one of the few actors to have been on top of his game during the high times of the late 80’s early 90’s action era and is the man at the top of the Hollywood mountain. One of the films he attached himself to the other he rejected and the central character had a quick change of gender to accommodate the new lead. The movies in question are Knight and Day and Salt…the actor is Tom Cruise. It’s always interesting in situations when actors make choices between two similar projects as it inevitably draws comparisons and there are a lot of comparisons to be drawn between the two films as both operate a ‘spy on the run’ narrative that ultimately have you questioning the motives of the main character and therefore those of friends, accomplices’ and in turn those charged with the task of bringing them in…but which one is better?

First up Knight and Day.
On the run and under surveillance by the FBI Roy Miller’s (Cruise) not so chance encounters with June (Diaz) sees her boarding a flight that will change her life in ways that she couldn’t ever imagine. Identified as a possible co-conspirator June is allowed to board in an attempt to execute them both. On the ground and on the lamb the pair are an unlikely partnership that must fight just to stay alive.

The spy on the run is a genre that American cinema is well versed in, Cruise in particular has seen all the APB’s and lived to tell the tale on a number of times. From the get go it’s obvious that Tom’s not in the fully serious spy mode ala Ethan Hunt (Mission Impossible) or the cold blooded killer of Collateral, which he was stunning in. Rather it’s a hybrid of Hunt with the likable charm of Jerry Maguire and some of the comedic timing of Les Grosman (Tropic Thunder). The set pieces, like Cruise are played for kicks and are well executed. The fight sequence at 30,000ft between Ray and the plane of Federal agents is well choreographed and played for the physical comedy that can taken from it. Somewhere between Bruce Lee and Buster Keaton and though isn’t laugh out loud hilarious works on a human level that can be lost in the action genre. Similarly the landing in the cornfield is exhilarating one moment and playfully quirky the next. This is pretty much the trend for the rest of the film as trouble rears it’s head, Cruis smiles and is charming in the moments of mortal danger therefore funny/harmlessly sociopathic. There’s normally something extremely enjoyable about Tom in this kind of form as it lends itself to, what we perceive as a normally serious man, being able to poke fun at not just his carefully crafted star persona but also himself. He’s on good form and is every inch the action comedy hero in Knight and Day (think Schwarzenegger in True Lies) but there is a darkness that almost demands to be brought out in the role that Cruise doesn’t seem to bring to the table and leaves the audience feeling uneasy in his performance.

Diaz (as June Havens) is somewhat underused, she flexes her comedy muscle well in several scenes and in the action sequences like the freeway, for example, provides most of the opportunities for comic relief. The only problem with it is that it’s not much of a role for her. Cruises’ role is clearly designed for him, it has his mannerisms built into the script, unfortunately, this is not the case for the female lead and is typically the cause in the action genre. Her acting chops were on display in Being John Malkovich and Any Given Sunday, yet since then she has kept to the shallow end of the pool and in Knight and Day it’s more of the same which we have come to expect. Screaming at gun fires and, for the most part, her dialogue to geared towards driving the back story of Roy and progressing the narrative of the film. It’s something of a thankless job as the actor typically ends up with a little more than a two dimensional character. Peter Sarsgaard (Fitzgerald) is a fantastic actor and a real addition to any case so it’s almost a crime with a capital punishment that he’s so underutilized. The role of the hunter (Sarsgaard) to the hunted (Cruise) is one that typically is a rather straight forward task as it’s all about their want to bring in the protagonist leaving little room for character but it’s almost impossible to think of another ‘spy on the run’ feature in which the hunter has so little screen time and when on screen has so little to do. Likewise with Simon, who we’re led to believe is Roy’s close friend and co-creator of the battery (played by Paul Dano). Dano is an indefinable talent simply awaiting his moment at the top of the mountain. Excellent in Little Miss Sunshine, as powerful and commanding as Daniel Day Lewis in There Will Be Blood he has a wonderful awkwardness that is so brilliant when you try and imagine how exactly he and Roy became friends. Yet he is given very little, enough to help flesh out the central character but is used for little more than pointing out the revelation that “people wot are good at science and stuff are nerds” which is again sad but he truly does shine even if it is for a limited amount of time.

Visually the film is extremely pleasing and you would expect nothing less from Mangold with films like Walk the Line, Girl, Interrupted and 3:10 to Yuma under his belt. The tropical locale of Roy’s hideaway evokes parallels of Bond, as does Austria with Mission Impossible and Germany with The Bourne Supremacy all of which are intentional and all, though could be treading old ground, manage to look and fell fresh. Such is the strength of Mangold’s eye behind the camera he could shoot a film in your living and make it look and feel new and fresh to you. John Powell’s score is excellent as it manages to strike the expected action movie cords while at the same time deliver something innovative and at times quirky, at others soft and personal but always excellent.

The problem with Knight and Day is although it has moments of comedy, the drugging motif is wonderful and allows for parts of the film to be experienced devoid of action which is extremely brave for an action film. The actions sequences are great, wonderfully staged, brilliantly executed by all involved and well placed, even the sometimes forced chemistry has genuine moments of emotion; especially June’s visit to Roy’s parents but all these moments are just that. For the most part the film just isn’t very good. Cruise rarely gets out of second gear and at times looks to be tiring after two decades at the top, the rest of the cast are given the narrative scraps to fight over and are only ever allowed to be engaging when they’re filling in some of Roy’s back story. The plot calls for an agent who has apparently gone off the rails but the danger is never there and the motives of Roy and in turn Fitzgerald are never the mystery that the narrative calls for. As a spy film goes Knight and Day is lop sided, heavy handed and arguably would have been better with a lead that could play the ambiguous moments in the narrative to their optimum level of darkness that would have lead to a more thrilling ride.

And now Salt.
 Like so many CIA operatives before her Evelyn Salt (Jolie) is identified as a Russian spy and is forced to go on the run in order to clear her name and in doing so only convinces those hunting her that they’ve got the right woman…and to bring her in. Tasked with the “manhunt” is the one person who knows Salt better than anyone else, her mentor (Schreiber).

Directed by Phillip Noyce (Patriot Games) and scribed by the writer of Equilibrium (Kurt Wimmer), Salt sets its stall out from the get go as a high performance action flick with a dash of political thriller to ground what is well trodden ground. Having been released from a North Korean military prison, accused of spying, Evelyn returns to D.C and the world of international counter intelligence. Two years later Salt is pulled into the middle of a Russian defection operation, not an everyday occurrence since the fall of the iron curtain, and on to a plan to “destroy America” using a sleeper agent from mythical KA12 programmer and that spy just happens to be Evelyn Salt.

The recent identification of Russian agents operating within the United States has led to a resurgence of the ‘Cold War Spy Film’, three of 24’s eight seasons contain Russian storylines within the U.S borders and Salt looks and feels like a technologically advanced return to the days of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold and the original Manchurian Candidate enthused with the tension and innovation of the Bourne trilogy. When a film script is passed on by Tom Cruise it can ultimately led to many disheartened individuals who have spent a lot of time bringing an idea to fruition how lucky they were to get the female equivalent to Cruise, but arguably tougher. Jolie is no action movie virgin, Tomb Raider, Mr. & Mrs. Smith…even Wanted all prove that Ange can bruise with the best of them and Salt is no exception. Straight from the off she balances the sexuality and physically in a way that can’t be matched by leading ladies in Hollywood at the moment. There have been many occasions in cinema and television were the action heroin has been a little less than convincing but Jolie can throw a punch and has a darkness, even in her nicest of characters, that gives even the most two dimensional script well needed depth. Schreiber performs well if, and quit fittingly for a G-Man, by the book adhering to the tested formula of trusting mentor/faithful friend and all the while plays both his affection for Evelyn and his disapproval of the Agencies methods to capture the rogue agent. The master and student relationship is one that usually sees the master bested by their young cub on several occasions, which is a necessary device in order to keep the film longer than ten minutes. Usually this stems from an unspoken telepathy between the two which in the hands of lesser actors can appear hokey but the relationship between Salt and Winter is written in the gesturality of the performers and delivered with perfection.

Chiwetel Ejiofor (Peabody) gives his best Tommy Lee Jones in The Fugitive impression…though slightly more shoot first physically interrogate later. The use of the word “impression” is not meant to be a slight on Ejiofor, he’s an extremely accomplished and intelligent actor who’s characters main purpose is to drive the film. After all it’s pretty pointless to run if nobody’s chasing you. It works. He’s an excellent actor who has mastered his craft and brings to boil the intensity needed to match Jolie and make him a worthy adversary yet managing to keep it from bubbling over allowing the audience to root against him but at the same time know he’s just doing his job.

As composers go there’s few bigger than James Newton Howard and his scoring is faultless. Salt's initial escape from the CIA is one of exhilaration and menace that put your adrenaline levels through the roof and you to the end of the seat. It’s a little conservative at times, you will be adamant that you’ve heard parts of it before and it wouldn’t sound out of place alongside Jack Bauer taking down a gang of terrorists with a stolen nuke but that’s also not a criticism. The action genre and audience have a certain short hand with one another and when composers, directors and writers begin to play with that you end up with either a cinematic mess (Vantage Point) or a far superior genre film (The American) but it’s a risk.

The cinematography very much reiterates the score's sentiment adhering to the tried and tested conventions of the genre, nothing wrong with that. Die Hard is a master-class on how to direct an action movie…it’s also an excellent action movie. Visually Salt is made up of several wonderfully crafted set pieces, the escape from the CIA leading into the jump from the bridge is excellent as it refuses to let you go for even a moment. The church sequence mixes the physically of Salt’s world with the somber mood inside extremely well, never really favouring one over the other and always keeping the tension levels slightly below unbearable.

Salt pitches itself as a political action thriller but in truth the politics is of no consequence and though the action set pieces get more and more extravagant as the film progresses it is because of that a typical action film. Ultimately there is little in Salt that you haven’t seen in Three Days of the Condor, Fail Safe or any of the Jack Ryan films but, what it is, is a solidly dependable, well made, old fashioned spy movie even if a little predictable.

Knight and Day



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