You've seen the posters and billboards. Large, black and white and mostly barren, save for four letters, Angelina Jolie's sultry, airbrushed visage, and perhaps a tagline reading "Who is Salt?"
Clearly, this is the central mystery of Salt, and also its most monumental failing as a film. No, I don't mean that the plot is easy to figure out (though some would say it is), but more importantly, the film never fully realizes just who Salt really is.
Why is that important? Well, the entire crux of the film involves Angelina Jolie's Evelyn Salt becoming the focus of a crazy conspiracy theory delivered by a Russian defector who waltzes into CIA headquarters in Washington DC on the day of Salt's wedding anniversary. Of course, she's in a hurry to get out and make dinner for her hubby, who studies arachnids for a living, has unrestricted access to North Korea for some reason, and who also rescued Salt from North Korea when her cover was blown on a previous mission.
Basically, the salty old Russian explains a secret Soviet sleeper agent program was developed to win the Cold War by "programming" young children, shipping them to America, and "activating" them later in life. The mysterious man then tells Salt and the listening officials, including her closest co-worker Winter (Liev Schreiber) and Peabody (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a stickler from another department, that one of the sleeper agents working within the CIA has been activated and will kill the current Russian President at the American Vice President's funeral. Did you get all that?
As Salt reaches her wits' end with the defector, he drops the sleeper agent's name: Evelyn Salt. Almost immediately, everyone in the control room doubts her innocence, and just as immediately, Salt stars acting against protocol, even though, rationally, the best way to convince someone of your innocence is to not run. But, you see, Salt can't reach her beloved husband on the phone, so she just has to break out of CIA headquarters, inspiring a dizzying chase across town in her attempts to find him.
Then, rather inexplicably, once it's clear that her husband has been kidnapped, she goes through with the assassination of the Russian President at the previously mentioned funeral. Now, up until this point, there's nothing to suggest that Salt isn't innocent, save the fact that she's on the run from the law. It's kind of a weak conceit of the film, and as a result, mitigates the suspense in all of the chase elements. That is, until the film actually makes the left turn it's been indicating for almost a full act later in the film.
Still, by this point, it's hard to believe that Salt is a sleeper agent acting on some old programming, it's more like she's playing a sleeper agent, and you're along for the ride, experiencing the twists and turns of the film's plot along with her. But, as the standing of our main character is inconsistent, it's really hard to buy into everything that's going on. There are some classic bait and switch moments that aren't really effective, yet they're directed well enough to be satisfying. It's a very odd film in that regard.
Make no doubt that Salt is a textbook example of a Hollywood heavyweight carrying a film. Without Jolie, there's no doubt in my mind that Salt would have been an unmitigated disaster. Angelina's sultry curves, big eyes and puffy lips do wonders to captivate you at the film's most boring moments, and her proficiency for action acting helps sell the reality of all of the film's haphazard chase sequences. While we never really get to understand what really motivates Salt, beyond, perhaps, after a certain point, revenge, Jolie sets the pace with a performance that allows the audience to suspend disbelief, albeit briefly, at each turn it makes. Basically, even though much of the film is snake oil, she sells it well.
Liev Schreiber and Chiwetel Ejiofor are decent foils for Salt, but neither is much of a standout, and, in the case of one of them, for good reason. I'll say no more, but they're both believable and sufficiently intense considering the drama and action going on, but it's nothing that's going to win any awards.
Directorially, Philip Noyce demonstrates that he's still got it and can direct an action sequence that's thrilling, yet perfectly perceptible. Even when Salt consecutively leaps onto no less than three trucks rolling along on the highway, you're still ready for her to steal a motorcycle and zoom through deadlocked lanes of traffic. Why? Because you're sufficiently amped up, but not overwhelmingly dizzy from the shaky cam cinematography and epileptic editing that plagues the typical Michael Bay movie. Noyce also treats ridiculous material with such earnestness that the film's most absurd moments are still easily swallowed. This is demonstrated most effectively during another action sequence involving the trapped Salt finding a new use for a stun gun- that of a remote control for the driver of the police car she's stuck in.
In the end, though, Salt is an exercise in futility. It offers nothing that we haven't seen before, except maybe perhaps the aforementioned stun gun gag, and offers thrills that seem dated when compared to original concepts currently in exhibition alongside it, like Inception. I have no doubt that if Salt was made a decade ago, it would be regarded much more highly than it deserves today.
Jolie is always fun to watch, but I groaned when I saw that she would be playing a super spy again. The marketing campaign is atrociously simple and while it allowed me to enjoy the film more than I expected, I feel that many people may ignore this film simply because it didn't look particularly interesting. But that's cool, because there are other movies in theaters right now that deserve your money much more than Salt.