The previews of the new spy actioner, Salt have been playing since late last year, with the tagline question, “Who is Salt?” It took me just about halfway through the movie to have my response, “I don’t care.” The movie’s quest to give an answer to the question is finally nothing more than a machine to jerk the plot gears this way and that. It also does not help that the actual revelations the story provides gets increasingly ludicrous and leaves gaping questions.
The movie is not a total slog at first, however, because the first third of the movie seems to build a certain air of mystery. Much of it is in the interrogation scene, which is the major scene the trailers have used as their selling point. CIA agent, Evelyn Salt (Angelina Jolie) is interviewing a walk-in Russian defector (Daniel Olbrychski) who claims there will be a Russian spy planning a political assassination in New York City. Salt’s boss, Ted Winter (Liev Schreiber) thinks it is a hoax and is about to dismiss him until the defector fingers Salt as the Russian spy who will be committing the assassination.
This much, you will have gathered from the previews, but the scene gets into many more details as the defector describes the history of the Russian spy and the movie starts to build a good sense of intrigue. As Salt then swiftly escapes to avoid capture by Winter and another CIA colleague, Peabody (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the movie offers some efficient action scenes. Of course, when Salt jumps off a bridge onto a truck below without breaking a bone, I was thinking she can leap more bounds than Wonder Woman but well, that goes with the summer-movie territory these days.
After that, however, the screenplay makes a big narrative jump to a state funeral in NYC where the said political assassination of Russian President Matveyev (Olek Krupa) is being conspired. I will avoid revealing the outcome of the scene other than to mention a clever little detail where an ominous alert is made by shooting out the pipe organ and creating a cacophonous sound. But the jump in the story was already filling me with the basic question of “What have Salt’s CIA colleagues been doing while she is freely on the run in between?”
The gap in the narrative also quickly deflates the air of the mystery that was built in the first act, as we realize that Kurt Wimmer’s screenplay is going to once again plod through increasingly preposterous plot points in the most generic and simple-minded way. I have frequently found Wimmer to be a hacky screenwriter who does not know to build suspense or drum up interest on the way to the next twist in the story. When the story turns become so far-fetched and nonsensical as evidenced consistently in films like Law Abiding Citizen, Street Kings or Sphere, we start to feel whiplashed from one disjointed plot point to another.
How preposterous does the movie get? Well, I cannot give away the exact reasons but a scene in which Salt suddenly blasts away a room full of people like Rambo had me scratching my head about how she makes it to her next contact without being hunted again. It only gets worse as the story leads to a threatened nuclear strike on the Middle East and the final flurry of revelations of shifting political loyalties are so arbitrary that I half-expected the characters to put on red or blue colored vests like elementary soccer players changing sides in a game.
It is too bad because the screenplay undermines the good performances and the often slick and efficient direction by veteran director Phillip Noyce. Noyce, whose blockbuster resume includes the Jack Ryan movies, Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger, amidst his usually more superior indie films like Rabbit-Proof Fence and The Quiet American, thankfully adheres to old school craftsmanship in filming chases and shootouts, and utilizes visual effects more sparingly than most. He also stages several of his fisticuffs with Jolie in a fashion that does cut away at crucial points of impact to preserve the film’s PG-13 rating but still ends up feeling realistic in effect. Ejiofor and Schreiber are two of the most reliable actors around but that only leads to the biggest disappointment, as the screenplay finally backs them into a corner to do things that lack conviction and credibility, which is difficult for these actors of this caliber to do.
As for Jolie, like the whole movie, she is best when she is able to project some enigmatic intrigue within her character in the beginning. As she flips into cold-blooded action mode, however, she resorts to more of her smoldering looks and gazes at the camera, all of which have felt to me like camera mugging and superficial mannerisms with little depth. And sadly, even the stunts from her character ultimately reach the breaking point of plausibility when she literally scales down an elevator shaft by jumping down two or three floors at a time and catching herself only by the tips of her fingers. One floor at a time, maybe; but two or three floors, not a chance.
Of course, if the story itself were more worthwhile, I might have been distracted enough to buy even that in a summer action movie. After all, the stunts in the Bourne movies, which this movie desperately aspires to, grew increasingly implausible with each successive film and yet the films overall only built more devious interest. The fundamental contrast is that the Bourne movies turned the action into a storytelling art with just enough plot to suggest its central mystery while Salt ultimately buries itself in outrageous plotting in its attempt to be clever.
Bottom line: Mediocre at best.