Give the advertising campaign credit: “Who is Salt?” isn’t just a marketing tagline, but the question you’ll find yourself asking over and over as Salt unreels before you. At first Evelyn Salt (Angelina Jolie) appears to be a CIA agent with a loving husband and a normal life, but it isn’t long before she’s crossing and double-crossing people without explaining to anyone, least of all the audience, why she’s doing what she’s doing.
And on paper, that’s kind of a nifty idea. Salt is undeniably the protagonist of the movie; we follow her almost exclusively through her many daring escapes, assaults and flashbacks. We see that she is whoever she needs to be in a given moment, which can be anything from a charming lady to a badass martial artist. But we never know where she stands. Is she hero, or villain?
The points of contention: Salt is on her way home to celebrate her anniversary with her husband when an ex-Russian spy comes in claiming that a rogue Russian intelligence agent wants to reignite the Cold War with a countless host of sleeper agents planted all throughout the United States. Who’s going to kick it off? Why, none other than Evelyn Salt, who’ll light the fire by assassinating the Russian president in New York City. This comes as something of a surprise to Evelyn, but her peers take it seriously enough to force Evelyn to flee. Only her boss (Liev Schreiber) still believes she is who she says she is.
From there Salt takes some genuinely surprising, topsy-turvy turns that you leave you genuinely questioning who it is Evelyn works for and who, exactly, you should be rooting for. I’m not convinced this works as the audience’s sole perspective for an entire movie, and Salt does not make the case well; it so thoroughly undermines Evelyn’s identity—already pretty scant due to a script that is 80% chase sequences—that it is, in fact, impossible to care about what happens to anyone. Jolie’s ability to switch from house cat to tiger in a manner of seconds is the only thing that keeps Salt from simply floating away into the ether.
Not that I didn’t enjoy the movie’s baser pleasures. For all her prestigious star power, I think Jolie is most at home in action roles. There’s something visceral about her presence; when she’s kicking someone’s ass you feel the sheer physicality of it. She stalks through her scenes with true menace and frightening competence.
Director Phillip Noyce occasionally succumbs to the shaky-cam chaos that you see in a lot of spy movies these days, but occasionally he remembers to pull back and show us what’s going on. Was it Mamet who said that audiences enjoy watching competent people do things well? That’s a sentiment that I think applies to action directors as much or moreso than anyone else. Don’t confuse the audience; take the chance to luxuriate in the proficiency and coolness of all those martial arts consultants, all that stunt work, and all those special effects. Why spend all that money and all that time if you’re going to obscure most of it?
In short, give people the show.
Salt mostly does. It’s a pretty movie when it remembers to be, its action is entertaining and occasionally inventive. It also contains a few genuine surprises, not least of which is the moral ambivalence of its lead. But there is clumsiness on display; the husband-in-peril thread is so thin as to be transparent and the opening info-dump given by the Russian spy was, oh, a little embarrassing. Salt’s stakes are good—and refreshingly old-school in a James Bond kind of way—and Jolie makes a great dramatic action lead. It’s a pity, then, that the movie’s central premise is also its downfall.
P.S. “Evelyn Salt” is a dumb name for a character.