Review: Salt

by Todd McCarthy
July 18, 2010 10:53 AM
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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.

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  • Claire | August 22, 2010 9:41 AMReply

    Good review that summed it up well - it was solid but not brilliant. Thank you

  • M | August 6, 2010 2:56 AMReply

    What I found most disturbing about this action flick, other than Angelina's emaciated look, was the fact that both Russian AND American characters get killed by her wigged-out character with equal gusto.

    What kind of cynical marketing ploy is this, where international audiences can CHEER Jolie as she kills Americans while US auds go gaga when she kills Russians.

    Is this a new way to satisfy international audiences, by killing Americans ?
    Certainly the Russians welcomed Angelina to town when she premiered the film there.

    Other than the generic, action sequences, the best thing about this film is the first 10 minutes, where a sweaty Angelina in bra and panties, is being tortured by some Asian evil types.

    Sad but true...


  • Max Alexander | July 24, 2010 9:01 AMReply

    Hi Todd, shoot me an email so I have yours; love to catch up. --Max

  • R. Butler | July 21, 2010 8:57 AMReply

    I had a few folks tell me the "why" of the change from Cruise to Jolie. He is on way down (series of flops, downward spiraling (slowly) box office sales..and she is on way up. Makes sense. I've watched her in more movies in past 5 years...than him. It is fun to see a role written for one gender given to another (sure this happens more than we know). The timing of SALT coming out ...and then the real russian spy roundup , imitating art yet again.

  • Q. Le | July 18, 2010 4:11 AMReply

    I heard that this film was originally written for Tom Cruise but was re-written for Jolie when they casted her instead. Solely based off the commercials, I'd assumed that the casting change was because "Salt's" premise was similar to that of "Minority Report" – in which the main protagonist has to prove themselves innocent in lieu of an accusation that is plausibly true.

    This is simple speculation of course, especially considering how "Salt" is a spy thriller and "Minority Report" is loosely based on Phillip K. Dick's short story of the same name.

    Thanks for the great reviews again. I always enjoy reading them.