CIA agent Evelyn Salt (Jolie) goes on the run when a Russian defector accuses her of being a Soviet sleeper agent, with a deadly agenda: kill the Russian president and trigger World War III. As her CIA bosses track her down, Salt fights to stay one step ahead, and rescue her kidnapped husband. But a terrifying truth may soon be revealed that will change everything…
NB: A mid-movie spoiler revealed in the following review. Do not read on if you don’t want to know anymore.
How Angelina Jolie and Phillip Noyce must have smiled inwardly and breathed a massive sigh of relief when the FBI finally managed to do something right and round up that group of, frankly, inept Russian sleeper spies back at the end of June. Because, until then, the concept of Salt — the thriller which reunites the director/star pairing some ten years after they first teamed up for The Bone Collector — seemed like a distant dream, a preposterous fantasy world, the sort of off-the-top-of-a-screenwriter’s head nonsense that makes your dad shake his head on a Sunday afternoon viewing and mutter darkly, “That’s far-fetched.” After all, it revolves around the idea of Russian sleeper spies, buried deep within the upper echelons of American government, ready to shed their cover at a moment’s notice and strike at the heart of the Great Satan.
Now, thanks to Anna Chapman and her Commie cronies, Salt doesn’t seem so far-fetched, after all. Having said that, if Chapman and her pals are ever allowed to clap eyes on the movie, they’ll recognise virtually nothing about their mundane lives. Not for Jolie’s Evelyn Salt the day-to-day drudgery of form-filling, light bureaucracy and keeping up appearances. Instead, this is the sort of post-Bourne spy who considers it all in a day’s work to bounce off bridges onto moving trucks, casually wipe out a squadron of trained assassins, and change her appearance more often than presenters on The One Show switch channels. Or, perhaps, that should be allegiance.
For — and here comes that promised spoiler — in just the first hint that the sands of Salt are going to shift more often than your average blockbuster, it’s soon revealed that Salt may, after all, be a Russkie plant, the sort you can’t pull up without causing serious damage. From this moment on, the film lurches enjoyably into the unknown, as we’re invited to consider the prospect of Angelina Jolie, not as a heroine, but as a villain. Or, truth be told, something inbetween, as Noyce, that old stager, revels in keeping the audience guessing on Salt’s motivations and actions, even when she appears to be up to her gorgeous neck not so much in derring do as derring shouldn’t.
All of which wouldn’t be possible without Jolie. After all, this is a film that revolves almost entirely around her, with her valiant supporting actors — Liev Schreiber and Chiwetel Ejiofor as the CIA agents dedicated to cutting her down — for the most part reduced to standing around and admiring her incredible, crazy, death-defying antics. And when it comes to selling incredible, crazy, death-defying antics, Jolie has few peers in the action business. And we’re including the guys in that. Whether it’s been the disappointing Tomb Raider series, or abseiling down a skyscraper in a corset in Mr. & Mrs. Smith, or flipping a car over a bus in Wanted, Jolie has been a dominating, vital presence in action movies for almost a decade.
And that continues here, with her on impressively steely form as Salt, convincing completely with action sequences in which she escapes from a moving cop car by using a taser in a manner that would surely invalidate the warranty, or manages to get down a lift shaft without actually waiting for the lift to arrive. Particularly in the movie’s second half, when Salt barely utters a word, it’s a performance that rests entirely on Jolie’s natural presence and physicality. It’s at times like this that Jolie brings a freshness to the character and the action that the tried and tested Tom Cruise — who was attached to Kurt Wimmer’s much sought-after screenplay back when she was a he, ultimately rejecting it because of similarities to his Mission: Impossible character, Ethan Hunt — might not. If Anna Chapman had done anything like this, chances are she’d have lasted about five minutes.
But it’s not just a part that trades on movie-star charisma, gym-honed elasticity and the kind of glaring stare that could make men twice her size think twice about having a go. Salt requires Jolie to act, initially as the demure, blonde-haired office jockey we first meet. Then, as the plot thickens, Jolie does a nice line in panic as Salt fears for the safety of her arachnologist husband (August Diehl, with a floppy-fringed makeover designed to eradicate any memories of his Inglourious Basterds SS officer), who goes conveniently missing at the same time as Salt is, potentially, activated.
It’s a shame, then, that the movie Noyce constructs around her isn’t quite as rewarding. His track record with CIA movies has been impeccable, with The Quiet American following on from the Jack Ryan double-bill of Patriot Games and Clear And Present Danger, but those films were all, by and large, grounded in the real world, with fairly plausible plot twists. And, despite the real-world intrusion which might give licence to the premise, the film itself is so littered with implausible plot twists, stunts and characters acting out of character that it’s all become a little daft even before we’re expected to buy into a sequence in which Jolie tries to pass herself off as a bloke. That the tone throughout remains deadly serious doesn’t help.
Noyce, directing large-scale action for the first time since Val Kilmer’s outing as The Saint, handles the more outlandish set-pieces, but is burdened by a need to humanise his heroine; a need that manifests itself in an unfortunate over-reliance on unintentionally hilarious flashbacks which show Salt, disguised as an improbably hot spider enthusiast, clumsily falling in love with Diehl, thus giving her a potential Get Out Of Jail Free card. And, admirable and brave though some of Noyce’s story choices are, it’s a lot easier to root for an adorable blonde who we think has been framed, than wrestle with our consciences while a cold-blooded, gun-toting brunette commits, or seems to commit, crimes against the state. For a while, Salt doesn’t have a protagonist it’s easy to get on side with. The consequence being there’s a black hole at the middle of the picture.
Happily, light manages to escape this particular black hole in the form of a third act revolving around a good, old-fashioned tussle between virtue and evil as loyalties waver and secrets are revealed. (Secrets that might not necessarily shock anyone who’s been paying a blind bit of notice, but secrets nonetheless.)
But, gaping flaws and all, at just 95 minutes Salt fairly races along (we suspect that there’s a whole DVD’s-worth of deleted material kicking around on a Culver City cutting-room floor), and while Noyce and Jolie bat breathlessly from explosion to car chase to shoot-out, there’s just about enough fun here to make a second helping of Salt a relatively palatable prospect.
Enjoyable enough nonsense, even if it barely cracks a smile. It’s not exactly the female Bourne we were hoping for. Still, Noyce marshals the crunches and bangs well, and it zips along at a pace sufficient enough to keep the paranoia alive. Never entirely predictable — a bonus these days — it’s further confirmation of Jolie’s action goddess status.