© 2010 Ray Wong
Originally written for a man (think Matt Damon…), Salt follows a basic espionage and wild-goose-chase formula with a twist, starring one of the quintessential movie stars of today.
After being detained by North Korea and later swapped, CIA agent Evelyn Salt (Angelina Jolie) is resigned to hold a desk job at the agency as her identity has been exposed. She can't be any happier, however, to play house with her doting husband Mike (August Diehl), a world-renowned entomologist. On the day of their anniversary, the agency receives a Russian defector, Orlov, and Salt agrees to interrogate him. Orlov informs them of a secret Soviet program that implants spies as US citizens from a very young age. He also informs her that a particular agent's name is Evelyn Salt.
Salt is immediately under surveillance while agent Peabody (Chiwetel Ejiofor) investigates. Orlov escapes. Even as her boss Ted Winter (Liev Shcreiber) pleads for her case, Peabody won't believe Salt as she's a "trained liar." Worried about her husband's safety, she escapes to find Mike, while trying to convince Peabody that she's innocent.
Angelina Jolie (Wanted) took a few years off and returns in her action-heroine mode -- her last such outing was in Mr. & Mrs. Smith (where she met Brad Pitt). As mentioned before, the role of Salt was originally written for a man, but writer Kurt Wimmer rewrote it for her. Jolie's physicality is tested in this film: running, jumping, kicking, fighting, and doing many of her own stunts. She must have taken cues from Matt Damon because her portrayal reminds me of a male version of Jason Bourne. However, while Damon has the boy-next-door charm that can easily blend in in any situation, Jolie's unique beauty stands out. It's hard to believe anyone wouldn't be able to spot her from a mile away. That aside, Jolie is a good enough actress to pull it off.
Live Schreiber (Repo Men) is back to playing a government stiff. His role is surprisingly small until the last act, which makes the last act feel somewhat lacking in that we never get to know much about the character. It's not Schreiber's best role and he seems to phone it in as well. Chiwetel Ejiofor (2012) is in danger of being typecast as the good-natured government man. At least he shows a bit of his nasty side in Salt.
The international supporting cast includes Polish actor Daniel Olbrychski (So Much for Justice) in a sinister role as Orlov. Germany actor August Diehl (Inglorious Basterds) looks like an entomologist but he and Jolie lack significant chemistry to be believable as a couple. Soap star Hunt Block (One Life to Live) is ridiculously unconvincing as the US President -- really, is he the best actor they can get for a major action flick starring Angelina Jolie? I suppose Dennis Quaid wasn't available.
Wimmer's (Law Abiding Citizen) screenplay is a standard espionage thriller. By and large he does everything right: lots of suspense, tension, and action-heavy. He also did his research and the set up feels authentic enough to be believable. As spy-swaps become well-publicized current events, the prologue seems particularly topical and relevant. The first half of the film is exceptionally taut and suspenseful, sending us to the edges of our seats wondering "what the heck is going on?"
Unfortunately, by the second act the suspense is lost once Salt's true identity is revealed. The flashbacks seem out of place and forced, not to mention a poor way of relaying backstories. The plot also takes an absurd and more unrealistic turn; it's as if Wimmer wanted to throw in as many twists as he can, 24-style. It doesn't quite work, and the twist at the end is predictable and, to put it mildly, sophomoric. Any fans of thrillers would have guessed it a mile away. Also, the Bourne- or Fugitive-type storyline is getting old unless there's something new for the genre. Unfortunately, Wimmer didn't give us any of that.
Still, it's good to see a woman in such a role typically made for a man. Jolie absolutely earns her movie star status with her physical performance, even though she doesn't have a lot of opportunities to "act." She looks and acts the part, and there's a down-to-earth quality to her action heroine -- once again, I think she's learned a lot from Jason Bourne.
Philip Noyce's (Catch a Fire) direction is tight and exciting. He, too, seems to have taken notes from the Bourne series -- it can be a good or bad thing, depending on how you feel about "originality." There are plenty of action, and Noyce stages them rather realistically. No Die Hard type of outrageous stunts here (except jumping from trucks to trucks seems rather unlikely, even for a super spy like Salt). Lots of close-ups and fast cuts. Like I said, the first half of the film is greatly entertaining, suspenseful, and taut. The tension, however, unravels midway through. Noyce tries his best stitching the whole thing together, and the stunt-work is exceptional. Washington DC, in particular, and New York City look incredible: there's a decidedly European feel to the movie even though it's set in the States. Once again, what does that remind me of? You got it: The Bourne series.
As an action/suspense, Salt does its job to entertain and engage, especially the first half. It's exciting, with plenty of gritty action and realistic situations to keep the plot moving and the audiences enthralled. It's only a shame that it brings nothing new to the table and the second half loses steam with a predictable ending. Fans of political and espionage thrillers may still find this a nice addition to the genre, however. Those who find the genre getting stale may see it as more salt on the wound.
Stars: Angelina Jolie, Liev Schreiber, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Daniel Olbrychski, August Diehl
Director: Philip Noyce
Writer: Kurt Wimmer
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action
Running Time: 100 minutes
Script – 7
Performance – 7
Direction – 8
Cinematography – 8
Editing – 8
Production – 8
Total – 7.2 out of 10