Movie Review: Salt
By Matthew Huntley
July 27, 2010
At first glance, Salt is another one of those movies where a wrongly accused man (or woman) must prove his (or her) innocence via a series of elaborate chase scenes and intense detective work. And indeed it is about an American woman accused of being a Russian spy who spends most of the movie pleading that she’s innocent. Initially, the movie calls to mind others like it, including The Fugitive, Enemy of the State and Minority Report.
But that’s only at first glance. By the halfway mark, it’s clear Salt isn’t so cut and dry. It’s more interesting because it keeps us guessing about the loyalty of the protagonist, and not just for the sake of guessing, but because that uncertainty makes the story more intriguing. It’d be real easy for the movie to settle and play as a traditional chase picture in which the heroine only has to find out who’s trying to frame her. But Salt adds a bit of a twist and goes for a less obvious resolution. It’s still a summer popcorn movie, but mindless it is not.
Angelina Jolie plays the title character, Evelyn Salt, a CIA agent who’s about to celebrate her wedding anniversary with her husband, Mike (August Diehl), an arachnologist. You know if any character in a movie has a job as rare as an arachnologist, a spider will come into play sooner or later.
Just as she’s about to leave the office, the agency picks up a walk-in who claims to know critical information regarding national security. Salt interrogates the man, a Russian named Orlov (Daniel Olbrychski), who tells her about Day X and the intricate plan to destroy the United States. He says it will begin when a Russian spy kills the Russian president during the funeral for the Vice President of the United States. Orlov tells her the name of the Russian spy is Evelyn Salt.
Salt and her CIA colleagues, Winter (Liev Schreiber) and Peabody (Chiwetel Ejiofor), are taken aback by the accusation, and she’s placed in an interrogation room just in case it might be true. After Orlov kills a couple guards and Salt notices the red flags going off, she decides to escape, leading everyone to assume she’s not who she says she is. What follows are some traditional, albeit very well staged, chase scenes in which Salt jumps off bridges, balances herself on moving trucks and steals a motorcycle. We’ve seen these kinds of set ups and stunts before, but they’re inherently thrilling, and they still work as visceral entertainment.
Where the plot goes from here, I cannot say, but I appreciated Kurt Wimmer’s screenplay and the way it prompts questions instead of merely providing simple answers. It’s not so black and white that Salt is either a good guy or a bad guy. We’re asked to pay attention in a movie that’s essentially being sold as mindless action. Of course, most of it is completely implausible and I can’t believe that Salt would walk away from some of the action virtually unscarred. Consider this: Salt forces a cop car to drive over a bridge and it crashes about a 100 feet below. The cops are unconscious but she escapes without so much a limp and simply unlocks her handcuffs. None of the passersby even think to detain or question her, or at least ask if she’s all right. Uh huh.
And the way she’s able to get around the White House during the climax is a bit too easy and fast, even for a movie like this. It seems a movie with a semi-intelligent screenplay should have better balanced its outlandish action so it all didn’t seem so, well, outlandish. But I’m willing to forgive it because farfetched action is what I expected. What I didn’t expect was a semi-intelligent screenplay.
Another reason to see it is Jolie, who’s just as attractive, passionate and enthusiastic playing Salt as any other character. In fact, I can’t think of any other Hollywood actress who’d be able to pull this off so seamlessly, but Jolie has the looks, the body, the charisma and the conviction to make it work with seemingly little effort. All of her natural assets are fully utilized and we’re with her every step of the way.
I was surprised to learn Salt was directed by Phillip Noyce, whose previous credits include the more earnest Catch a Fire and Rabbit-Proof Fence. With Salt, he shows he’s versatile and capable enough to make fast-paced action movies in addition to slower, reflective dramas. He brings a serious, respectable tone to Salt. It has over-the-top action but also an ample brain. I liked being able to ponder the movie’s tagline - “Who is Salt?” - longer than I anticipated. The answer isn’t so obvious.