Director : Philip Noyce
Screenplay : Kurt Wimmer
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2010
Stars : Angelina Jolie (Evelyn Salt), Liev Schreiber (Ted Winter), Chiwetel Ejiofor (Peabody), Daniel Olbrychski (Orlov), August Diehl (Mike Krause), Daniel Pearce (Young Orlov), Hunt Block (President Lewis), Andre Braugher (Secretary of Defense), Olek Krupa (President Matveyev), Cassidy Hinkle (12-Year-Old Chenkov), Corey Stoll (Shnaider), Vladislav Koulikov (Chenkov’s Father), Olya Zueva (Chenkov’s Mother)
Salt is either one of the smartest movies of the summer or one of the dumbest, and its primary pleasure lies in trying to figure out which it is. The story of a high-level CIA operative who may or may not be an embedded Russian spy on the run from her own colleagues, the movie is awash with cardboard characters, ridiculous actions, and scenarios so far-fetched that they may very well challenge even the most jaded of disbelief-suspending summer movie patrons. It reignites all of the fears of the old Cold War in the post-9/11 age, and it is nothing if not adept at pushing political buttons, albeit with a sledgehammer. Yet, it’s hard to tell if screenwriter Kurt Wimmer, who wrote the dystopian cult favorite Equilibrium (2002), which he also directed, as well as last year’s credulity-stretching Law Abiding Citizen (2009), means for us to take any of this seriously or if it’s really just an elaborate parody of implausible summer thrillers. It seems like director Phillip Noyce, who helmed a few Tom Clancy thrillers back in the early 1990s, is taking it very seriously, but that just adds another meta-level of curiosity, making one wonder if different people involved in the movie had completely different ideas of what it’s all about.
Returning to action movie form, Angelia Jolie stars as the eponymous Evenlyn Salt, a CIA agent who we first meet being tortured by North Korean baddies before being traded back to the U.S. at the insistence of her German émigré boyfriend Mike (August Diehl), whom she later marries. Fast-forward two years and Salt is happily married and settled down in cozy upscale domesticity after having switched from dangerous field duty to pushing papers in an office. Just as she is about to leave, she and her immediate superior and good friend Ted Winter (Live Schreiber) are called back to interrogate a man named Orlov (Daniel Olbrychski), a Russian defector with a story to tell. When Salt sits down with him, he lays a whopper on her about Cold War-era spy programs in which Soviet children were programmed to be good American citizens, just waiting to be put into action in a master plan designed to bring about a massive world war that would decimate everyone (including the U.S.) and leave Russia standing tall. The story’s punchline, however, is that the secret sleeper agent who is planning to kill the visiting Russian president is Salt herself.
Winter doesn’t believe it for a second, but Peabody (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a National Security honcho, isn’t so sure and wants to detain Salt for questioning. She is having none of it for the simple reason that she wants to get back to Mike to make sure he is okay (ah, love ...). Alas, she can’t get in touch with him, so she breaks out of CIA headquarters, thus instigating a massive (wo)manhunt that will basically last for the rest of the movie. Is Salt a Russian agent or an innocent being set up in some massive conspiracy? Depending on which point of the movie you’re in, the answer to that question will seem clearly one way or the other and sometimes both, which is part of its trick. Although originally designed as a vehicle for Tom Cruise (who apparently decided to take a lighter approach to the same basic scenario in Knight and Day), Salt could have very well been written expressly for Jolie, as it takes advantage of her uniquely ambiguous star quality--a mixture high-profile international charity work with an underlying gothic darkness (which seems purposefully invoked in the movie when she trades in her sweet blonde locks for a dark mane of black). She may have married Brad Pitt and adopted a lot of orphans, but it’s still hard to shake memories of her cuddling too close with her brother and wearing Billy Bob Thornton’s blood around her neck. Salt exploits this star persona conundrum, and while it works to an extent, it also robs the movie of a central character, as Jolie never really gets out from under her own warped spotlight and turn Salt into something more than an impervious killing machine with flashes of emotion (the answer to the movie’s tagline “Who is Salt?” is ultimately meaningless in this regard because the answer is so obvious: Angelina Jolie).
Aside from Jolie’s presence, Salt’s timebomb narrative streaks from action sequence to action sequence, laughing furiously in the face of reason and physics and asking us to laugh along as well. Granted, Noyce manages to wring some tension and excitement from some of the more ridiculous sequences, especially one in which Salt is leaping from the backs of 18-wheelers driving on different levels of a multi-level highway (the filmmakers also have some fun with a MacGyver-esque sequence in which she makes a rocket launcher out of a hollow table leg, a fire extinguisher, and some janitorial supplies). But, when it comes to her various plans--which may be designed to bring about the end of the United States or save it--the gears of plausibility start really groaning and shrieking, particularly in a climax that involves her breaking into the supposedly safest place on earth--the bunker eight stories beneath the White House--by sliding down an elevator shaft, knocking out a couple of guards, and slipping through a door before it shuts. But, even that doesn’t prepare us for the insanity of the sequence that awaits us, in which the film’s true villain is finally revealed and there is nothing less than Armageddon at stake. High-pitched summer Hollywood overload or knowing satirical meta-joke? You be the judge.
Copyright ©2010 James Kendrick
Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick
All images copyright © Universal Pictures