On the big screen, the Russians are coming


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Can the Cold War make a comeback? Not the real Cold War, but the one at the multiplex, where Russian spies are American agents who are really Russian spies working for a super-secret international coalition.
This weekend, “Salt” will try to do just that, as Angelina Jolie plays a well-reputed CIA agent who, after being accused of working for the KGB, goes on the run in a violent spree that alternately confirms both her innocence and her enemies’ accusations. The Phillip Noyce film, which is being released by Sony Pictures, harks back to twisty Cold War thrillers like “ “No Way Out” -- who works for the Russians and who for the Americans? -- but with the pacing of a present-day action picture.

Whether audiences will buy some of the conventions of a Cold War movie, or Russia as Public Enemy No. 1, remains a question. “Salt” producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura says he feels any skepticism about Cold War-themed movies is overblown. “We heard this kind of genre feels overplayed,” Di Bonaventura says of some of the executive response when he first tried to set up Kurt Wimmer’s script at a studio. “But none of it really made any sense, because in my experience the audience likes film in any genre if it’s done the right way.”


Audiences’ appetite in Cold War-era spy movies is of particular interest to the producer, who also has another such staple in his arsenal. Momentum is building -- there’s activity around, if not quite a greenlight for -- Di Bonaventura’s origin story of Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan character at Paramount. The hero, previously played by Alec Baldwin (“The Hunt for Red October”), Harrison Ford (“Patriot Games,” “Clear and Present Danger”) and Ben Affleck (“The Sum of All Fears”), will be played by the new Capt. Kirk, Chris Pine. (The new film, tentatively titled “Moscow,” isn’t based on a Clancy book; it takes an original non-Ryan script and grafts a younger version of the character on it.)

Sources say that a number of filmmakers have surfaced as possible candidates to take on the project, including Jack Bender, a “Lost” director who is an acolyte of Paramount uber-producer J.J. Abrams; “Terminator: Salvation” director McG; and “Seabiscuit” director Gary Ross. (Paramount says that “no offers have been made and any speculation would be premature.”)

Who takes the job will go a long way toward shaping the end product. But the bigger question may be how a new Ryan movie goes over culturally. Bad guys will be bad guys, and a strong plot knows not from national motive, but there’s no doubt that spy movies in the 1950s and 1980s, for example, derived some of their suspense from real-life circumstances -- the recent specter of WWII, or the heat of the Cold War. And while Russian espionage was back in the news lately, it remains to be seen how long it will stay there.

Di Bonaventura, for his part, says that the period element isn’t a hindrance, and could actually help the film. “I think there’s an opportunity to bring back something very loved. The older audience has a sense memory of what the earlier films were, and the younger audience has a chance to go through some of that journey with a new star whom they love.” And, perhaps, discover a new enemy to root against.

-- Steven Zeitchik

Photo: St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow. Credit: Sasha Vasilyuk

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