An intelligent, realistic thriller is a beautiful thing, but it isn’t everything. It’s bad form to admit it, but a film can be utterly implausible without insulting its audience. The new spy thriller Salt is only slightly more realistic than, say, Avatar, but it is an exciting and engaging piece of action cinema, and a good reminder that a group of skilled filmmakers and actors can sometimes make even the most ridiculous story entertaining.
The film opens to find Evelyn Salt (Angelina Jolie) in North Korea, captured by the government and being tortured to prove she’s a spy.
She is soon released, traded for a North Korean who was caught by the United States, because of the dogged efforts of her boyfriend, Mike (August Diehl), to get her freed.
The movie jumps forward in time a couple of years to find her back in Washington working a desk job for the CIA. She is on her way out the door at the end of the day, ready to celebrate her wedding anniversary with Mike, when a Russian defector walks into the office and needs to be debriefed. The Russian, a mysterious man named Orlov (Daniel Olbrychski), says that there are several Russian sleeper agents in the United States that were planted as children and are waiting to tear down the government, and one of them is named Evelyn Salt.
Desperate to prove she isn’t a sleeper agent, and worried about her husband’s safety, Evelyn escapes and goes on the run, using her underwear to mask a surveillance camera and constructing a homemade rocket launcher out of some simple household materials. And that’s just for a start. The rest of the movie consists of an escalating series of chases and action set-pieces, each more over the top than the last.
The script, written by Kurt Wimmer (Equilibrium, Ultraviolet) feints toward plausibility early on, with Jolie getting waterboarded in North Korea, but the further along it goes the more ridiculous it becomes. The plot is outlandish enough, but the action is often utterly ludicrous. The CIA must train its agents how to tuck and roll exceedingly well, because Salt should have broken several dozen ankles and wrists during the course of the film. Jolie doesn’t just jump from a freeway overpass onto one big rig truck; she jumps onto three, and then proceeds to knock a guy off his motorcycle and speed off. And later, she descends through an eight-story elevator shaft by free-falling one or two stories at a time, grabbing onto the side with a grunt and then continuing down. I kept expecting the supporting characters to stop chasing Salt and start cheering at how awesome all of her stunts were.
The film was directed by Phillip Noyce, who has made several good films (Rabbit-Proof Fence, Patriot Games) without having much of a directorial personality. But Noyce shoots action well, and here he gives the action scenes a pulse while also stepping back so you can tell both what’s going on in the scene and that real humans are performing the stunts. Noyce and cinematographer Robert Elswit (There Will Be Blood, Michael Clayton) shoot the film in a gray, wintry tone that makes the movie look like Three Days of the Condor, even if the similarities end there. Somehow, Noyce and company make the action scenes exciting while also grounding them in reality enough to lend the film some realism it doesn’t necessarily deserve.
Also lending the film some believability are Liev Schreiber and Chiwetel Ejiofor in supporting roles. Schreiber plays Ted Winter, Salt’s boss at the CIA and her friend for many years, and he is solid, as he is in virtually every role he plays. Ejiofor plays Peabody, the counterintelligence operative tasked with catching Salt. I think Ejiofor is one of the finest actors working today, as his performances in Redbelt, Serenity and Dirty Pretty Things attest, but you wouldn’t know it from his nothing role here. It’s nice that he is getting work, but with this and 2012 he seems to have a new career giving a little emotional heft to silly blockbusters.
Jolie’s commanding presence and public persona work both for and against her here. She has a hard time vanishing into a role these days when she tries to play a somewhat normal person, even in films such as Changeling or A Mighty Heart, in which she gives good performances. So her playing a spy, whose goal is to blend in and, you know, be covert, is a little far-fetched. But Jolie’s public persona and her sort of extraterrestrial beauty do a lot to sell some of the more absurdly awesome things her character manages to do. Salt does things here that would make James Bond and Jack Bauer blanch, but to Jolie it seems like it’s all in a day’s work. And if she doesn’t question it, then why should we?
Despite the best efforts of its actors, Salt is emotional Teflon, but as a thrill ride it does its job quite well. It is an energetic, breathless action film that keeps the audience interested enough that we don’t notice or don’t care about the inanities of its plot.
Carey Norris writes about film for Birmingham Weekly. Send your comments to email@example.com.