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.
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!
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.
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.