A film review by Craig J. Koban July 27, 2010


2010, PG-13, 105 mins.


Evelyn Salt: Angelina Jolie / Ted Winter: Liev Schreiber / Peabody: Chiwetel Ejiofor / Orlov: Daniel Olbrychski / Defense secretary: Andre Braugher / President Lewis: Hunt Block


Directed by Phillip Noyce / Written by Kurt Wimmer

There are very few screen performers – female or not – that are able to combine a believable hybrid of soulful vulnerability, animalistic physicality, and raw sex appeal better than Angelina Jolie.  She displays all of these ample attributes in spades in the new espionage mystery/thriller SALT.  Jolie has proven time and time again her worthiness among the pantheon of great dramatic actresses (see CHANGELING and A MIGHTY HEART) and she most certainly has revealed herself to be very competent in the action genre as well  (see WANTED, MR. AND MRS. SMITH, and THE TOMB RAIDER series).  In SALT we see Jolie creating an emotionally grounded and believable protagonist that we also buy as a physical force. 

The problem with the film is not her; she is a credible entity here.  The entire screenplay that her character is thrust into, alas, is laughably lacking in credibility.  Now, there is absolutely nothing wrong with action thrillers that go out of their way to suspend my disbelief, but those films usually do it with a self-aware, tongue in cheek flavor.  SALT never really comes across as being irreverent with the underling material: it takes its story of a CIA agent that is accused of being a KGB killer and conspirator and treats it with a stone-cold severity, so much so that it has the negative side effect of making all of its head shaking preposterousness feel even more head-shakingly preposterous. 

Moreover, the screenplay – provided by Kurt Wimmer, who penned last year’s hilariously awful and ridiculous LAW ABIDING CITIZEN – makes the mistake of thinking that it's smarting than the audience and one step ahead of them all of the time.  The plot itself is not nearly as clever as it comes across, as anyone with a modest level of intelligence and focus will be able to see most of the film’s would-be shocking plot twists from a mile away.  It’s one thing for a film to stretch the fabric of reality, but it’s another when it commits that sin alongside being inordinately predictable with its twists and turns. 

Jolie plays Evelyn Salt, one of the CIA’s most dependable, assured, talented, and resourceful agents.  The film does an exemplary job of thrusting us directly into the thick of things: We are immediately introduced to Salt, beaten to a bloody pulp and stripped down to her bra and panties, in a North Korean torture den (the scene comes across as both shockingly exploitative and intriguing; we don’t know the particulars of why she is there, nor why she is being treated so inhumanely).  After her release is secured by both her loyal partner, Ted Winter (the always dependable Liev Schreiber) and her future fiancé (August Diehl), we fast forward to the present where, during an ordinary day at the office, Salt and Winter greet a Russian defector, Orlov (Daniel Olbrychski) that has turned himself into CIA custody,  

Winter decides to let Salt handle the interrogation, seeing as she has an unimpeachable affinity for it, but when she does get the defector into a secure room he shocks her and all of her superiors monitoring in a nearby secure room with a bombshell.  He tells them that a special secret Russian double agent – trained from childhood – will kill the Russian President while he's in American attending the funeral of the U.S. Vice-President.  That’s not the most scandalous bit of Intel, though: Orlov goes on to reveal that the secret agent is actual Salt herself. 

Now, the opening sections of the film are really compelling for the types of basic questions it asks about Salt’s loyalty.  Is she really a deplorable and murderous Russian spy that has implanted herself deep within the American intelligence community waiting to strike when the time is right or is she really an innocent victim that is at the mercy of Orlov’s sick mind games?  Winter certainly does not think that Salt is indeed a mole, but Company Internal Affairs officer Peabody (Chiwetel Ejiofer, bringing a quiet intensity and conviction here, as he always does) has his deep suspicions.  He becomes really suspicious when she goes on the run and, while escaping CIA headquarters that was placed under lockdown, nearly takes down all of his men in the process.  She is then pursued throughout the city, engaging in a nearly lethal cat and mouse game with Peabody and Winter, but she still steadfastly professes her innocence.  However, as she approaches the cathedral where the Russian President is sent to give a speech at the memorial, we are still left wondering how innocent she really is. 

Even though the central mystery surrounding the title character is essentially put to rest at about the mid-way point of the story, it is the enigma of Salt that remains the enticing hook for the audience.  The film also benefits from some really solid pacing (it’s a brisk and intense 95 minutes) and direction by Phillip Noyce (no stranger to governmental spy fiction: he did PATRIOT GAMES and CLEAR AND PRESENT DANGER) that is clean, uncluttered, and professionally mounted.  I have often bemoaned about how far too many modern action directors shoot and edit scenes to the point of eliciting epileptic seizures in audience members, so it’s really nice to see a consummate old pro like Noyce bring clarity to the various scenes of mayhem.  He lets his shots linger and focus, and even when the action gets fever pitched, you always gain a sense of what’s transpiring on screen.  I wish that more filmmakers today would simply just keep the camera still: disorienting viewers does not create a sensation of suspense, just headaches. 

The performers are all unfailingly decent and authentic: Jolie has no problem morphing into an action hero with the drop of a hat, and she plays her role relatively straight and with gutsy authority, which lends authenticity to the film.  Schreiber and Ejiofer, two actors that I have consistently admired, are also convincing and strong.  Yet, these tangible performances seem kind of squandered in a plot that utterly defies even modest common sense. The more the film progresses and the more Jolie’s Salt is propelled from one inordinately implausible action sequence and plot twist to the next, I just found it really difficult not to roll my eyes out of incredulous spite.   

There are reality-damning moments that I typically laugh with in films, but many in SALT made me just vehemently quiver with skepticism.  For instance, why would the CIA ever let in a Russian defector into their headquarters without fully searching him (he later reveals a concealed weapon that most certainly would have been set off by metal detectors)?  Also, why would any group go to the trouble of assassinating the Russian leader in America when killing him in his own country would have been so much simpler?  Also, considering how distinctive Jolie looks in real life and as Salt, it’s truly astounding how she manages to evade capture from the CIA and local police officers while on the streets.  Oh…wait a minute…she does change – gasp! – her hair color to elude people at one point, but then there’s a completely phony moment late in the film when she dons a disguise as a man, which manages to fool everybody around her.  Trust me when I say this, but Angelina Jolie does not make a convincing man in any way shape or form. 

More blatant ridiculousness abounds, especially during most of the action sequences.  I groaned during one sequence where Jolie - like a Jason Bourne morphed with MacGyver – manages to quickly foster a rocket launcher out of a swivel chair and a fire extinguisher.  Yup.  Right.  Sure.  Uh huh.  Then there is the way that she is able to methodically mow her way through countless larger male adversaries from New York’s finest, without nay a scratch or cut on her.  There is an uproarious sequence where she leaps from one speeding truck to the next on a freeway without completely paralyzing herself in the process.  I especially chuckled at the sight of her hurtling down an elevator shaft by simply jumping from one wall to the next lower one with an ease that Spider-Man would appreciate.  This woman is impenetrable and invulnerable; she is not a mortal CIA operative…she is the Bionic Woman. 

There are other moments of the plot that are lazily telegraphed, like embellishing the fact that her German fiancé is one of the leading national spider researchers in the world (their apartment is littered with the creepy crawlers, so you just know that one of the venomous ones will heavily figure in later).  I will concede that the film is crafty for the manner it manages to make Russians a source of evil again in mainstream American films, and the story culminates beyond the basic plot to kill the Russian President and plunges into an intense conclusion that just may involve all out nuclear war.  Yet, the film is just too brief to even hint at the political complexity of its underling premise, not to mention the way Salt fits into to all of this in the end.  And speaking of endings…and without spoiling anything…the conclusion of the film is terribly underwhelming, abrupt, and deeply unsatisfying.  It made me feel that Noyce and Wimmer seemed more interested in setting up a franchise and future SALT entries than with telling a gratifyingly self-contained story.  SALT feels likes it's missing a third act altogether as a result. 

It’s been said that SALT was originally envisioned as another Tom Cruise vehicle, but then was later re-imagined and retrofitted for a female lead (with uncredited script assistance from Brain Helgeland).  Even with the obvious gender changes here, SALT still can’t hide from its basic faults.  Yes, it often plays like a decent collage of THE BOURNE FILMS  meets THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE with a dash of real Cold War tensions resurfaced, but the film is just too silly and inanely over-the-top to digest and recommend.  Now, does it fall under the banner of "Cinema of Incredulity"?   You know, a genre - coined by my former editor - of films that have a high pedigree of absurdly mind-boggling stunts and action that manage to maintain a laughable level of self-awareness throughout about how outlandish they are.  Uuuuhhh…SALT is indeed outlandish, but it treats its story with such a solemnity that I doubt it even knows just how outlandish it is.

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