Oh, “Salt.” For about half an hour there, you were doing just fine with your steady stream of slick thrills and tight action set pieces. Energetic and uncluttered, the story barrels through at a delirious clip…
…until Kurt Wimmer’s screenplay completely collapses once it realizes it actually needs to tell a story after it’s finished turning the entire first act into one very long chase sequence. It’s not the set-up that kills it – although, recent news stories be damned, “Russian spy infiltrates the U.S.” is fairly embarrassing in its out-of-dateness, as if the whole thing was discovered at the bottom of a drawer that hasn’t been opened since Reagan’s first term – but the payoff, which attempts to cram in a handful of ill-advised shocks and surprises while ignoring various plot points it no longer finds convenient to bother with.
Angelina Jolie (now weighing a full thirteen pounds!) plays Evelyn Salt, a top CIA agent who spent some time as a hostage in North Korea, then married the German spider expert (August Diehl) whom she used to gain access to Korea. Please note that neither backstory has anything to do with anything; I’d call them red herrings, but I don’t think the script is that clever. More likely, both threads simply got chopped down to insignificance in the editing room.
The real story begins when an aging Russian agent (Daniel Olbrychski) arrives at CIA headquarters and insists Salt is a mole working deep undercover on a mission the KGB put into play decades ago, back when there was still a KGB. CIA honcho Peabody (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is displeased by this revelation; Salt’s co-worker pal Winter (Liev Schreiber) is sure she’s innocent. Salt, meanwhile, stages a daring escape, claiming she’s fearful for her hubby’s safety.
And what an escape. Director Philip Noyce, returning to his Jack Ryan/Simon Templar action roots after a string of low-key dramas, crafts a riveting set of action beats: a barefoot Salt scaling a building, a quick-witted Salt constructing a makeshift bomb to elude her captors, a limber Salt diving off highway overpasses and leaping across the tops of speeding trucks. It’s a whirlwind of airtight action bound to be on the highlight reel of every stunt coordinator and editor who pitched in, celebrating the “Bourne” style (minus the shaky-cam) without cheaply copying it.
Alas, the plot-free action must end eventually. Rather than let “Salt” be a compact, barebones (no pun intended, Ms. Jolie) actioner, Wimmer sets out to turn the film into a mind game: is Salt a spy? Is she being framed? If so, by whom?
While no explicit spoilers exist in what follows, there’s enough in the discussion to demand a minor spoiler warning for the remainder of the review.
But “Salt” contains no great riddle – instead, it tosses us a series of switcheroos where characters are revealed as coming from the land of Not Who They Appear To Be. This works nicely once, and once only, a mid-movie kink that arrives unexpectedly, throwing a nice wrench into the works, smartly playing with the conventions of the genre. If only the movie was wise enough to stop while it was ahead.
The screenplay attempts to expand on this switcheroo, except the switcheroo is only interesting as a storytelling gotcha, not as the groundwork for the second act. And so we must muddle through both a ridiculous yarn about those pesky sleeper agents and overcooked flashbacks about the sleepers as children, trained as kids to despise America. (To better imagine these flashbacks, think of the opening scene from Noyce’s “The Saint” spread out over an entire film.) We also get flashbacks of Salt’s courtship of her future husband, but it’s a path that leads nowhere; rather than teach us how Salt is willing to fake emotions to get her way, we watch as the husband slowly slips away in importance to the plot, and we stop caring.
(It’s been suggested in online gossip the ever-weakening husband subplot is just one sign of excess tampering in post-production. How much of the story was reworked in editing? Perhaps quite a bit – Andre Braugher, playing the Secretary of Defense, is among those top billed, yet appears for only a few seconds and has but one line of dialogue. Could ninth inning meddling be to blame for the story’s feeble throwaway story threads?)
All this leads up to a large pile of extra twists and turns and surprises, all of them calculated to be unexpected, none of them calculated to be interesting. There’s a raid on the White House that should’ve been as intense as the opening chase sequence, but this time the excitement gets sidelined to make room for surprises that land with a thud. Even Jolie’s physical badassery fails to connect with us the same way this time around, the film opting to move her into full-on nigh-invulnerable superhero territory, which deadens her impact as a person.
It’s all a plan, apparently, to turn “Salt” into a franchise. The final sequence is a exasperatingly overlong set-up to a sequel, or a TV series, or something – anything that can give us the character’s further adventures. This retroactively turns the rest of the picture into an origin story, which in turn makes the rest of the picture less engaging as a story.
A final note. The KGB-vs.-CIA story leaves us wishing the story took place in the 1980s (or, better yet, the 1950s); a few pieces of excess exposition reveal the Russian president is a Boris Yeltsin-type, key to post-Cold War relations, suggesting a 1990s adventure; the fictional presidents (both American and Russian) allow the film to take place any time. And yet the movie is set in 2011 – not far enough in the future for its politics to grab their own imaginary rules, yet not the present day. An odd move, really, mostly unnoticeable, but then, these are the sort of things you catch when you’ve given up caring about the story.