I was planning to let this one pass. Honestly. What purpose would be served, I asked myself, by cataloguing the manifold deficiencies of the Angelina Jolie spy thriller Salt, a second-tier summer offering unlikely to inspire much critical or commercial enthusiasm anyway?
But as I was coming to this conclusion, the film itself shamed me back into an appreciation of my duty. It happened near the end, when the heroine committed a homicide that was not strictly speaking necessary, and another character asked her, "Why did you kill him?" She replied firmly: "Because somebody had to."
Somebody has to. If government assassins and reviewers of mediocre summer cinema have anything in common (and, in fact, we have quite a bit), it is an appreciation of this Spartan credo.
In this instance it's best, I think, to be quick and businesslike, avoiding emotional involvement and the unnecessary infliction of pain. So here goes. Salt is a dull, dumb, humorless film. I've written before about Hollywood's failure to produce B+ (and even B-) genre films, and Salt is a prime example—a movie that ought to have been a competent if uninspired entertainment but instead approximates Bourne for Dummies.
Jolie stars as CIA superspy Evelyn Salt, whom we first meet undergoing interrogation at the hands of North Korean intelligence. (Call me a cynic, but the purpose of this opener seems less to introduce Jolie's character than to introduce her tied up and in her underwear.) Fast forward a few years, and Salt is back at a desk job stateside, bantering with her boss (Liev Schrieber) and preparing for a romantic dinner with her husband (August Diehl), a German arachnologist. (Yes, his offbeat occupation will provide the excuse for exactly one silly plot twist later on.) Work intrudes, however, when a self-declared Russian defector (Daniel Olbrychski) shows up on the doorstep with a story to tell.
It seems that in the bad old days of the Soviet Union—which were, of course, the good old days for Hollywood spy movies—a plan was undertaken to place dozens of sleeper agents in the U.S. These moles would gradually assume positions of authority, in preparation for a "Day X," when the Motherland would call upon them to bring our capitalist excesses to a violent halt. (Why this Soviet plot has survived the Soviet Union by two decades is mystery the filmmakers do not see fit to plumb.) One of the moles, the defector tells Salt, is poised to ignite an international incident by executing the Russian president when he visits New York. And the name of that hidden assassin is... Evelyn Salt!
As her superiors try to sort out what the hell is going on, Salt makes a break for it: she claims it's because she fears her husband is in danger from whoever hatched this nefarious plot, but darned if she doesn't seem to be behaving just like an enemy spy. Such is the narrative teeter-totter on which we will pass the duration of the film: Is Salt a Russian assassin? A devoted wife? Neither? Both? The answer may surprise you, though probably not in a good way.
Jolie's unusual brand of masculine magnetism is well-suited to roles such as this, and for a while the film is diverting enough as a kind of upside-down No Way Out. But the limited, forgivable absurdities (Salt's MacGyver-like construction of a bazooka from elements of an office chair) gradually give way to a level of pandemic preposterousness that makes Ethan Hunt look like George Smiley. The attempt on the Russian president's life is followed by another, on the American president's, with a bid to launch a U.S. nuclear strike thrown in for good measure. I was vaguely relieved that the film's overzealous agents didn't have time to release a global neurotoxin or roust bin Laden from his cave—though for all I know such feats await us in the director's cut.
The director in question is Philip Noyce, who has made spy films both contemplative (The Quiet American) and lively (Clear and Present Danger), but here opts for neither. A movie as harebrained as this needs a hint of wit and self-awareness, but Salt is dour and self-serious to a fault, right down to the murdered loved ones and grit-toothed promises of vengeance. This is a film so stolid that it offers a Russian agent with retractable shoe blades without even a whiff of irony. (Where have you gone, Rosa Klebb?) Worst of all, in keeping with the present fashion, Salt has the misplaced confidence to end with a coda announcing its enthusiasm for a sequel. Here's hoping that if the box office does not lay such ambitions to rest, the presumptive title of such a project—Salt II—will do the trick.