REVIEW: Salt [2010]

“Are you selling secrets for chemo?”

The question is, who is Salt? Two years ago she was a falsely imprisoned utilities corporation worker being water-boarded by the North Koreans; an unspecified amount of time after she is a CIA operative who has been saved and traded back to the US, not by her bosses, but by the cover boyfriend who fell for her and started making waves in political circles; and, in the present day, she is accused of being a Russian covert plant—a part of the Soviet Union’s insane plot to destroy America that began with a switcharoo spy taking the identity of Lee Harvey Oswald. Hell, a couple years ago Salt was Tom Cruise. Look at her now.

Director Phillip Noyce has a successful track record for political espionage thrillers, so the material is right on par with previous work. Writer Kurt Wimmer, on the other hand, seems to have reformatted his career trajectory into writing those types of movies for hire ever since the dismal failure of his sophomore turn behind the camera, Ultraviolet, a film I still hope to one day watch his vision of, before the studio mangled it. Unfortunately, I don’t know if he has another Equlibrium in him. We can only hope, because, sadly, this is not it. Salt isn’t a bad film by any means, it just isn’t one brimming with originality. The pieces fall into place and Wimmer injects about three or four twists to shock you, but that method is now the norm. Shock value would be doing what we expect these days.

This is a solid thriller with nice front-to-back action; populated by three actors for whom I have a lot of respect. Liev Schreiber has made a career of being the stoic, no nonsense government guy and Chiwetel Ejiofor the same as the intelligent agent with a side of compassion. So, it was nice to see the archetypes flipped here—or are they—as Schreiber’s Winter becomes the one to rise to Salt’s defense, hoping Ejiofor’s Peabody relents from using fatal means to bring her down. Yes, they have to bring her down. Whether she is a double agent or not, the girl runs once a Russian spy enters their headquarters, divulges her supposed identity, and escapes. Frightened for what the people setting her up might do to her husband—that kindly German arachnologist from Korea—she runs to find him and perhaps clear her name, or maybe assassinate the Russian president like Daniel Olbrychski’s Orlov said she will.

The question, despite anything shown onscreen, remains constant throughout. Right when you think you may have a handle on the real Ms. Evelyn Salt, the answer gets turned on its head. Is she a patriot, and, if so, for what country? Would she kill in cold blood? Was she trained to become an American known as Salt—a girl in the USSR involved in a car crash killing her parents—but in fact was born and raised in Russia, waiting for the chance to sneak into the US? Does she love her husband or is he just a pawn in her game? Surprisingly, while you can correctly guess her true motivations early on, Angelina Jolie—the third actor mentioned in the paragraph before—portrays them all. The ‘who’ may in fact be all of the above; maybe the Soviets underestimated what could happen to someone after decades of undercover work. If Visitors in “V” can form the Fifth Column against Anna and Cylons can choose to fight for the colonies in “Battlestar Galatica”, why couldn’t a Russian spy find the desire to honor her adopted country, despite her original reasons to be there?

Through all the car chases—and there are many—as well as the hand-to-hand combat seeing Jolie/stunt double parkouring on walls to disable her opponent, there is more to it all, hidden beneath the surface. Clues are blatantly left out and shown in close-up, begging us to guess crucial plot points rather than allow us to go back, watch a second time, and have an “a-ha” moment—yes, I’m talking to you Mr. Spider—and Salt finds herself hunted by every agency the US has, but it isn’t all so pandering or full of insurmountable odds that show our government’s ineptitude more than the wiles of a soldier. In the end, this lethal weapon, who unflinchingly uses a knocked-out Secret Service member’s shoulder as a silencer to maim his buddy turning the corner, is ultimately a human being, one who found a yearning for a normal life away from the job. August Diehl’s Mike Krause might have found his way in as a mark to be used and tossed away, but his actions saving her, possibly the first true compassionate gift in her life, made him her reason to keep going.

Audience members will go into the theatres looking for fights, action, gunfire, and writhing metal in crash after crash. They’ll be happy because Salt is above all else a film meant to get the adrenaline pumping. Ejiofor and Schreiber do their job, progressing the way they need to in service of the overall plot; the ending is pure Hollywood, always leaving a backdoor escape route for sequel possibilities these days; and, I’ll admit, seeing someone as attractive as Jolie kick butt for two hours is enjoyable. But what resonated with me the most is that underlying theme of love’s power to change our core. Wimmer is a talented man and he hid that little carrot of humanity in what a lesser writer would have made pure unadulterated kill-or-be-killed cat-and-mouse. I don’t think the film would have been as effective if Tom Cruise, or any male actor for that matter, played the lead. Jolie’s ability to switch from steely-eyed coldness to wavering lip of vulnerability is Salt’s saving grace, giving it a touch more than the normal summer actioner I assumed it would be. I do, however, still hate that her face is off-center on the poster.

Salt 6/10 | ★ ★ ½

[1] Angelina Jolie stars as “Evelyn Salt” in Columbia Pictures’ contemporary action thriller SALT. Photo By: David Giesbrecht
[2] Chiwetel Ejiofor as ” Agent Peabody” and Liev Schreiber as “Agent Ted Winter” in Columbia Pictures’ contemporary action thriller SALT. Photo By: Andrew Schwartz, SMPSP


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