The Good: Decent pacing, Moments where the plot is engaging, Acting.
The Bad: Characters make little real-world sense, Too familiar, Largely unsurprising.
The Basics: Average-at-best, Salt is another political thriller which is less-than-thrilling.
I am so tired of movies where virtually the entire film is shown in the trailer. I mention this at the outset of the review of Salt because the movie feels remarkably familiar after the first half hour and it is largely because, once again, Columbia Pictures ruins the movie by putting far, far too much of the movie's best moments in the trailer. This leaves remarkably little for film enthusiasts to enjoy in the film and even less to be wowed by. In fact, Salt is almost entirely ruined by knowing anything about the film, but the latest Angelina Jolie vehicle is pretty much the banal action-adventure film fans have come to expect from Jolie for her Summer Blockbuster Season outing. Salt was last year's Wanted, but Angelina Jolie doesn't bare all and the film lacks the intriguing hook (Wanted at least had the nifty curving bullets thing and some decent direction).
But more than the faults of the promotion, Salt flops in a world where Alias was popular for years. The female spy thing is something we've seen before. As well, the whole "mistaken identity political thriller" has been done before and with Salt the movie just feels stale. If one wants to reinvent the genre, it might still be possible. But Salt doesn't do it. Kurt Wimmer and Phillip Royce wrote and directed a movie that hinges on all of the typical reversals one expects from a spy thriller.
Evelyn Salt is a CIA agent working in Washington, D.C. when a Russian defector walks in and is captured by the Agency. Because of her expertise, Salt and her partner, Ted Winter, are assigned to debrief him. The CIA is disturbed when the defector reveals that there is a Russia sleeper agent who is going to kill the President later in the day. They are even more alarmed when the sleeper agent's name is revealed to be Evelyn Salt. Salt's peers, seeing that the defector is telling the truth, look to detain Salt while they sort out the truth from the lies. Unwilling to be detained, Salt goes on the run to try to learn the truth herself.
Immediately, she begins to look for her steadfast ally, her husband, but when she discovers him missing, she is forced to flee on his trail. Stealing vehicles, eluding capture and searching for her husband and the truth leads her to New York City, which only causes Ted and Agent Peabody to suspect something more is going on. While Ted believes in Evelyn, Peabody just wants to protect the President and he becomes more determined to stop the crime. But as Evelyn nears the place where the President is, it becomes evident that the machinations are not what they seem.
Salt follows in a long tradition of chase movies from The Fugitive through less popular films, like 16 Blocks, but the basic premise is a ticking clock film where the truth is being sorted out on the fly. Unfortunately for Salt, the viewer is hardly able to care because the movie makes no real sense from a pragmatic point of view. Evelyn Salt is characterized immediately as being both a patriot and exceptionally intelligent. As a spy, she has a natural disbelief that she could be a sleeper agent, but as a patriot and an intelligence operative she has to see the potential threat she would represent if the accusation were true. So, it is utterly unfathomable that she begins running and sets off the whole chase that becomes the rest of the movie. Instead of being a team player, letting Ted and Peabody find out the truth, she does exactly what the villains of the film want by heading toward New York City.
This, then, seems more a function of ego for the protagonist of the film. Evelyn Salt is the type of character who quickly comes to believe that if she is not going to kill the President, only she can prevent it. This, like most spy thrillers, becomes a parody of the realism of a spy's work. The team effort that is the actual CIA has more than just one qualified agent, despite what movies like Salt would have you believe. There is a strangely distorted view of law enforcement in Salt.
But beyond that, the movie is not as entertaining as the trailers make it seem. Sure, there are the usual banal car and motorcycle chases, there is gunplay and there are stunts (Jolie herself got hurt while filming the movie). But there is nothing particularly fresh. We've seen car crashes where the prisoner gets away again and we've seen the fast movement through the impossible New York City streets.
What sinks Salt, then, is that the characters have little to empathize with. Instead, we ultimately do not care who Evelyn Salt is and what her part is in an alleged plan to kill the President. Instead, the loyalty Ted shows Evelyn seems more generic, just as Salt's desire to run seems nonsensical. In fact, only Peabody feels like a truly realized character, the way he questions both Salt's allegiance and then her actions during the chase. He might not have Ted's blind appreciation for her and her talents, but as he begins to come around on the bigger picture, his arc is the most realistic and easiest to empathize with.
That said, the acting is pretty extraordinary. Angelina Jolie gives an action-packed performance that proves she can still thrill by running, jumping and shooting. Liev Schreiber is plausible as Ted and Chiwetel Ejiofor steals every scene he is in as the methodical and brilliant Peabody. In fact, Schreiber and Ejiofor give performances unlike what is in their repertoirs. They are both strong actors who have the ability to emote and to sublimate their obvious emotions to make them both seem like they would be CIA Agents and have loyalty, patriotism and humanity within them.
Unfortunately, it is not quite enough to save Salt. Salt stops being sensible or even fun too quickly and the result is a remarkably blase action thriller that feels like what it is: Angelina Jolie's attempt to keep relevant in genre works through the summer so her name will still be remembered when she does a classy film around Oscar Pandering Season.
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© 2011, 2010 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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