Review: Salt

By Todd McCarthy | Todd McCarthy's Deep Focus July 18, 2010 at 10:53AM

They've figured out a pretty clever way to make Russian commies the bad guys in a contemporary thriller in “Salt,” with the long arm of red ruthlessness reaching from the grave to hammer Washington, D.C. where it hurts. Although the relentlessly paced spy vs spy story glosses over how a lone woman, no matter how lethal a weapon, can repeatedly take out a dozen or more armed men, the set pieces are exciting and Angelina Jolie is shown off at her action-figure best.
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They've figured out a pretty clever way to make Russian commies the bad guys in a contemporary thriller in “Salt,” with the long arm of red ruthlessness reaching from the grave to hammer Washington, D.C. where it hurts. Although the relentlessly paced spy vs spy story glosses over how a lone woman, no matter how lethal a weapon, can repeatedly take out a dozen or more armed men, the set pieces are exciting and Angelina Jolie is shown off at her action-figure best.

Eleven years after his last major studio production, “The Bone Collector,” which also starred Jolie, director Phillip Noyce demonstrates that he's still got the energy and focus that served him well in the best stretches of “Patriot Games” and “Clear and Present Danger.” Stylistically, he here steers a middle course between traditional narrative coherence and hyperventilating “Bourne”-style shorthand, with the result that some of his star's impressive heroics feel like too much of a cheat. But Jolie herself is in her full glory here as a character born when Bond and Brezhnev ruled.

Read the rest of the review after the jump.

Where she was born is a critical element in the conceptually shrewd work of screenwriter by Kurt Wimmer (“The Thomas Crown Affair,” “Law Abiding Citizen”). When first encountered “two years ago,” Evelyn Salt is crying out “I am not spy!” while being pummeled in a North Korean hellhole. Released to her CIA superior Ted Winter (Liev Schreiber) and her German-born husband, Evelyn is no sooner back at work in Washington than a Russian defector (the great Polish veteran Daniel Olbrychski) walks in with stories of how a whole breed of Soviet sleeper agents was planted in the U.S. a generation ago and is now about to start its dirty work, beginning with the assassination of the current Russian president, who will imminently attend the funeral the American vice president in New York City (an event shown as taking place in 2011). One of these sleeper spies, he suggests, is Evelyn Salt.

Immediately, it's off to the races, which is pretty much where things remain for most of the film's compressed and compact 100 minutes. In great shape for having recently shared accomodations with North Korean vermin of all species and pursued at every step by suspicious, heavily armed and ever-more frantic American agency ops, Salt manages to slither out of CIA headquarters, sneak home, run a security obstacle course requiring her to leap from the top of one vehicle to another on multiple highways and finally find a way to New York City, where the fun really begins.

The suspense primarily pivots upon the question of where Salt's true loyalty lies, with the Soviet brainwashers who sculpted her into a model of ideological and physical perfection, or with the U.S., which she has served for years with distinction. Much of her behavior in this incident-jammed drama would suggest the former, to the desired point that you're prepared to believe that Salt really could be a villain. In this crucial central issue, the film succeeds in provoking the suspension of disbelief which, bolstered by abundant hand-to-hand combat and Jolie's dazzling physicality and confident gaze, puts it across as solid popcorn fare in the most important fundamental ways.

As agreeable a diversion as“Salt” may be, it has its significant limitations: the film is single-minded, lacking in humor that would have provided a welcome contrasting flavor, content to recycle conventional notions about spies and in want of a single sustained and realistic scene, akin to the great train compartment fight in “From Russia With Love,” that would have proved Salt's actual abilities against an adversary, the better to encourage the acceptance of other face-offs that tend to seem too easily won. It's worth noting that the Russkies here still make use of Rosa Klebb's unforgettable blade-tipped shoes, and with greater effectiveness.

Most big pictures in which the nation's capital figures make do with picture postcard establishing shots but rarely use the city in any detail. To its credit, this one does, with numerous scenes featuring different neighborhoods that are clearly not Toronto.