THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
Angelina Jolie might be good or might be bad in Salt. Either way, I didn't care.
It's often a troublesome sign when an action movie hero(ine) is referred to as “highly trained.” The phrase typically indicates laziness on the part of a screenwriter; the central character will invariably be able to get out of and survive any situation through improbable means because he/she is, you know, highly trained! The main figure in Salt is so highly trained that, in one scene, she's able to use some conveniently-nearby chemicals – along with a fire extinguisher and a table leg – to craft a makeshift cannon. This takes her all of about 30 seconds. But absurdity is only part of the problem here. CIA agent Evelyn Salt (played by Angelina Jolie) has no other personality traits besides the fact that she's highly trained in all kinds of elite skills.
We first meet Salt in a covert office in Washington, DC. Just as she's about to leave for an anniversary dinner with her husband, her supervisor, Ted Winter (Liev Schreiber), asks her to interrogate a Russian gentleman who has just entered the building, claiming to have important information to spill. Long story short, the Russian accuses Salt of being a spy for his country, assigned to infiltrate and destroy America from within the top ranks of its own security forces. He even seems to have proof. Knowing that her superiors will certainly detain her until the matter can be fully investigated, she bolts. Winter and another high-ranking official named Peabody (Chiwetel Ejoifor) give chase.
For the longest time, Salt wants us to wonder whether the character is good or evil. She denies being a spy, even while doing things that appear to be consistent with what the Russian says. Maybe I'd have cared more if she possessed even an inkling of a personality. However, because the film wants to keep us guessing, the character is never permitted to do anything to indicate who she really is; Evelyn Salt is nothing other than a set of skills. The audience is asked to follow and care about someone who is a complete and total enigma on the human level. It is, of course, entirely possible to create a compelling character who is also mysterious, but Evelyn Salt is not mysterious in interesting ways. This makes watching Salt a hollow experience. I never once cared whether she was good or bad, or a little bit of both.
What we're left with, then, is a series of action scenes that have no center. Are we rooting for Salt to get away, or for Winter and Peabody to catch her? We don't know, and that distances us. The action is of the usual variety: car chases, shoot outs, daring leaps from great heights, etc. Director Phillip Noyce stages the action well from a technical standpoint, yet nothing about it is new or innovative. In many ways, it feels sort of old-fashioned. When Salt jumps off an overpass to land on the roof of a passive semi truck, the moment fails to thrill because we've seen this sort of thing dozens of times before. For better or worse, modern action pictures have raised the bar (admittedly, sometimes to absurd heights), so going retro doesn't work unless there is some kind of unique twist to the approach, which this film fails to find.
Salt also asks us to swallow a really bizarre plot, which I won't divulge much of here, except to say that every time you think it can't get more outlandish, it does. I'm a believer that if a plot is going to be implausible, that's okay so long as the film doesn't take itself too seriously. This one seems to be filled with self-seriousness as it takes on covert government agencies, political assassinations, and terrorism. Noyce and screenwriter Kurt Wimmer appear to be trying to balance intelligent political ideas with over-the-top thrills, but those two things really feel at odds in this case. The movie's final act additionally relies on a very predictable plot twist – one which illustrates my rule about being suspicious when a good actor is cast in a seemingly thankless role.
Salt felt very hollow to me. When it was over, I walked out of the theater feeling like I hadn't even seen a movie. Angelina Jolie can certainly be a credible action heroine, as she proved to varying degrees of success in Wanted, Mr. and Mrs. Smith and the Tomb Raider flicks. This time around, she comes up with a major dud – a picture that isn't smart, isn't fun, and is really just a great big waste of time.
( 1/2 out of four)
Salt is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action. The running time is 1 hour and 39 minutes.