Salt is not a cautionary tale about the dangers of high blood pressure from too much sodium. No, it’s just another entry in the flaky, forgettable farrago of predictable action thrillers in a particularly brainless summer, this time starring Angelina Jolie as a Russian-trained CIA operative named Evelyn Salt, who may or may not be a double agent working both sides of the fence. Like most of the loopy escapism I’ve suffered through this summer, it is totally preposterous.
But what sets it apart from the rest of the junk is the fact that, like it or not, it has a certain entertainment value and you can at least follow the plot without the risk of insanity. Salt has two things going for it: 1) it is no more than 100 minutes long, give or take a minute, and 2) it is better than the moronic, overrated Inception. That is not a recommendation.
Directed by Australia’s Phillip Noyce, Salt opens in a fetid cell in North Korea where the heroine (referred to throughout as, simply, “Salt”) is beaten, battered and bloody as she lies on the floor of a torture chamber repeating the words “I am not a spy.” Get used to it. She says it for the next 90 minutes, as she faces more perils than Lara Croft, Tomb Raider. Rescued by fellow CIA agent Ted Winter (Liev Schreiber) in a prisoner exchange, Salt returns to Washington and her happy marriage to a German writer and world expert on spiders.
One day, in the course of routine interrogation, a Russian defector tells a fantastic story—about a Russian spy who has infiltrated American society as a mole working for the CIA in order to kill the Russian president during his forthcoming state visit to be a pallbearer at the funeral of the U.S. vice president at St. Bartholomew’s Cathedral in New York City. The name of the killer spy: Evelyn Salt.
From this unlikely premise, Salt’s baffled colleagues suspect her as a real mole and her secure, orderly life suddenly turns upside down. In an effort to clear herself and save her husband, whose life is in danger, Salt goes on the run, breaking every rule known to man, woman and movies. Dismantling top security surveillance equipment, blowing up government buildings, scaling tall buildings like Spider-Man, smashing through glass doors, leaping from bridges onto the tops of speeding trucks, and speeding through the beltway traffic on a stolen motorcycle without losing a single press-on nail, the female half of Brangelina literally defies both logic and gravity as this breathless action circus coasts along on one center-ring question: Who is Salt? A loyal, innocent American patriot, a Russian “sleeper spy” left over from the Cold War after the Berlin Wall came down, or a modern-day terrorist in Jimmy Choos who looks like the cover of Vanity Fair?
The faster it moves from one expensive disaster to the next, the sillier it gets. Single-handedly destroying one of New York’s most massive cathedrals while eluding an infinite gridlock of police vehicles, Salt begins to look like a master criminal even to Schreiber, her closest pal, and especially to the counter-intelligence officer (the brilliant British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor) assigned to bring her in dead or alive, with or without her accessorized boutique wardrobe. But that’s only half of her mission—Salt’s ultimate assignment is to seize control of America’s atomic weapons. The Russians think she’s Comrade Cherkov. The CIA thinks she’s Evelyn Salt. It’s hard to tell the difference, especially since she never shows the slightest hesitancy to annihilate vast numbers of people on both sides. To further complicate matters, the Russians also order her to kill the U.S. president, which means blowing up the White House! You can’t accuse Kurt Wimmer’s screenplay of lacking imagination, even if it does contain lines such as “Utilitarianism is the new sexy.”
Salt is as believable as a secret training program for military pilots consisting entirely of kangaroos in flight helmets. But it must be said that the star carries her load admirably. Disguised in assorted hair colors, wigs and contact lenses, she emerges as a new persona in every scene, all looking like Jolie, but tossing around enough red herrings to keep you guessing. The script is brain-dead, but Jolie can act. Less seriously trashy than usual, she even does an astonishing number of her own bone-crunching stunts. By the time she jumps out of an airplane over the Potomic without a parachute and heads off to save the world, you cannot resist laughing out loud, but you’ll have a fun time anyway. As program staples, there are dozens of Evelyn Salts all over what’s left of network television. But none with the supple, surprising ingenuity of Jolie. She puts the pepper in Salt.