In almost any group endeavor it’s important to make sure that every member of the effort understands and shares the same vision. Otherwise the final product can seem muddled as different parts of the group pull the project in different directions. Unfortunately, Salt falls in this category, splintering off into two distinct groups of thought: popcorn action and serious conspiracy thriller. The result is an intellectually interesting film with plenty of action, but lacks heart and strains to stir emotions.
Evelyn Salt (Angelina Jolie) is a CIA spy. On the day of her wedding anniversary, as Salt is leaving the office with her boss Ted Winter (Liev Schreiber), they’re both recalled to interview a crusty Russian defector to test his credibility. He reveals to Salt that the Russians are going to put into action a decades-old plot to strike against the United States by first assassinating the visiting Russian President using sleeper agents that were planted within different American agencies. Startlingly, he claims that the name of the agent who will carry out the assassination is Evelyn Salt. This revelation piques the interest of CIA counter-intelligence officer Peabody (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who wants Salt interrogated. Meanwhile, Salt can’t get a hold of her husband and, seemingly fearing the worst, escapes custody. Questions remain about her allegiances, however, and her actions constantly keep all parties involved guessing.
The choice to have the truth about Salt’s motives and intentions kept ambiguous is a novel idea; however, it’s a dissatisfying convention for a main character. For most audiences, feeling like they’re rooting for the bad guy won’t sit well. As a result, viewers become less invested in the character and care less about him or her succeeding, which is a shame because Salt is placed in many perilous situations that should be creating tension, but don’t. As Salt beats up good guy after good guy, viewers hope that she’s doing it for the greater good and not the greater evil, but won’t really care if she gets killed since she might be a bad guy. No one likes being tricked into sympathizing with something they are morally against, which is why treachery by secondary characters is so frustrating and the hero’s revenge upon that treachery is so satisfying.
Salt is timely, considering the recent news about Russian spies, however, the concept is taken to fantastic levels here, with images of children being brainwashed by a Russian Spy Master who, among other things, forces the children to kiss his ring. As such, the film should have planted its tongue in its cheek as with other stories penned by Kurt Wimmer. Unfortunately, director Phillip Noyce – who has a history of directing political thrillers – presented a film that took itself very seriously. Set pieces are set up exceedingly well, from high profile funerals to daring car chases, and capture the right amount of verisimilitude. But then these realistic backdrops are coupled with superhuman feats, like jumping down elevator shafts, a hundred-pound woman physically besting larger, heavier male opponents and walking away from vehicle collisions unscathed wearing a sassy scowl. There’s even a MacGyver moment where Salt manufactures a makeshift bazooka out of cleaning material and parts from an office desk. The conflict of style won’t consistently go over well with audiences.
The cast all do a fine job with the material they’re working with. While they don’t always have enough to say and do to craft a character that goes beyond the archetype, everyone utters their lines with enough believability to keep audiences engaged. Angelina Jolie, of course, has no problem carrying the film. She looks amazing and displays the adequate amount of range to guide audiences intellectually from scene to scene. Audiences will know a scene is shocking because Angelina looks shocked, an action is important because Angelina looks determined, and so on. Unfortunately, there’s an emotional disconnect, but that’s not a fault of the acting.
Moviegoers looking for action will find it here. There are plenty of shootouts, car chases and old fashioned martial arts. Some of the action is actually quite fresh and clever, like when Salt uses a stun gun to control a driver’s foot to accelerate a vehicle or when the environment is used in clever ways. Other times, however, the action stretches believability very thin so mileage may vary.
Salt is a bit odd in that it’s better in retrospect, but not as enjoyable while watching it. It has all of the elements of a satisfying film, but in the wrong order. Fortunately, there appears to be room for a sequel, so perhaps the storytelling shortcomings here will be rectified in the possible future film and perhaps the filmmakers will also explain just why Salt is such a badass.