The tagline for the 2010 movie Salt, upon its initial release to theaters this past summer, was “Who is Salt?” While the short answer to that question is a character played by Angelina Jolie in this spy thriller, it may be better to say that by the end of the film you won’t particularly care.
Directed by Phillip Noyce, the movie stars Jolie as Evelyn Salt, a CIA agent who gets accused of being a secret Russian sleeper who will eventually be tasked with destroying the United States and replacement for the real Evelyn Salt. The issue with the film certainly isn’t that it’s kind of preposterous, although it is (whether or not governments ever planned such things, it’s all still rather silly). No, the issue is that the twists and turns are rather boring, the betrayals and backstabbings rather obvious, the action sequences merely decent, and the overarching plot pretty weak.
Salt is, in short, one of those films that features a good cast and has some nice ideas, but just never really bothers to go anywhere interesting. The actors do their level best with the roles that they’re given, but they’re not given all that much.
Appearing alongside Jolie are Liev Schreiber and Chiwetel Ejiofor, and there’s even a brief appearance by Andre Braugher (blink and you’ll miss him… don’t blink and you’ll wonder why Andre Braugher is there). Schreiber is Ted Winter, Salt’s boss at the Agency and her defender once Ejiofor’s Peabody – who works in counterintelligence – starts seriously considering that Salt is a traitor. Ejiofor has the best role in the film as he’s the only one who seems in any way willing to logically consider what is taking place and why. Jolie, as we’ve seen in some of her other work, can certainly be an action star, but the script never offers her the opportunity to do anything besides the action. In fact, the only way that the film seems to be able to give us any sort of internal thought for Salt is by throwing in a few flashbacks here and there. Unfortunately for the film and the audience, they never really provide her with a character that is interesting or fully developed. Perhaps the tag asks us “who is Salt” because no one, including the filmmakers, really know.
The film is not all bad however, there are certainly some solid (but not outstanding) action sequences, including a car chase that features Salt jumping from truck to truck and a fight at a funeral in St. Bart’s in New York City. That is just not enough though to recommend the film, particularly when it promises to be so much more.
There are certainly stories that can be told about the new political realities in Russia following the fall of the Soviet Union and how those realities affect the United States. In fact, we’ve seen movies like that on more than one occasion already; we’ve been seeing movies which examine that basic question for more than a decade. The sub-genre is by no means closed forever, but any movie which attempts to add itself to the canon at this point really ought to have some sort of strong point of view and plot behind it – and the only thing that seems to differentiate Salt is that there’s a female action character in the lead which is not enough.
Salt would work better if one got the sense of why the events build in the way that they do, but that doesn’t really happen. We have no solid motivation for any of the bad guys and the various moves that they make seem to be done solely so that we can get another action set piece not because they have a clearly defined goal other than to wreak havoc.
Perhaps most disturbing about the entire endeavor is that the final scene between Peabody and Salt appears to exist solely to set up possible sequels down the line. Like the rest of the film, it doesn’t feel well thought out but rather as though someone realized that the door should be left open and so some lines were tossed in to make it possible.
The Blu-ray release comes with not one, not two, but three different versions of the film. That’s right, if you buy the Blu-ray you get the theatrical cut, the unrated director’s cut, and the unrated extended cut. The first of these versions runs 100 minutes, the second 104, and the third for 101. There are definitely some minor differences here and there between the theatrical and director’s cuts, but the biggest changes occur with the extended version. The alterations don’t make the film any better or worse, just altered (particularly the ending).
Also included on the Blu-ray is a commentary track from Noyce and a picture-in-picture track that shows storyboards and features discussions on how the film came together. There is also a radio interview Noyce did with Elvis Mitchell, and several featurettes including a making-of piece, one on the disguises Jolie wears, one on Jolie’s work in the film, another on Noyce’s work, and a featurette which intersperses discussions with actual spies with footage from the film. The most interesting behind-the-scenes bonus piece we get is on the various CG work used in the movie. Rather than covering things like big explosions or obvious stuff, it shows how they created a false White House, added in a butterfly, and did tons of little things to change the reality of the film.
The technical aspects of the release are as mixed in result as Salt itself. There is a lot of detail to be seen, but the black levels aren’t consistently good, no detail whatsoever can be spotted in shadow, and the amount of noise that appears in some scenes is variable from shot to shot. Although the surrounds are used frequently, and the bass is ample, the 5.1 DTS-HD MA soundtrack isn’t well balanced. Anything said quietly gets lost unless you turn up the volume significantly and doing that will result in the music and effects track being blaringly loud. In short, the release is as inconsistent as the film.
The final reason why Salt is such a disappointment (and this may really be the main reason) is that it feels like one lost opportunity after another. The film has a good cast, a good director, and good (if well-worn) premise – you can’t sit there and watch the film though without getting the feeling that it really ought to be far better than any of the three versions presented on the Blu-ray. If they do opt for a sequel I certainly hope it results in greater success than this film.