Salt Dir. Phillip Noyce

[Sony Pictures; 2010]

Styles: action, spy thriller
Others: The Bourne Identity, North by Northwest, Dr. Strangelove

Whoever Salt is makes for a great question, but it’s also an easy one: Angelina Jolie is Salt. In fact, Jolie’s face and the name of the movie make up the entirety of Salt’s pre-release hype. It’s meant to speak to the never-ending layers of deception and secret identity that make up the thriller portion of this espionage movie, but it also captures another side of the film’s identity: What is Salt trying to be and for whom? It’s almost purely an Angelina Jolie vehicle, and it’s a through-and-through action movie, with spy-flavored plot points.

Only a handful of minutes into the film, the action begins and never lets up. Jolie is Evelyn Salt, a could-be-Russian spy maybe masquerading as a CIA agent. She’s trying to leave work early, because it’s her anniversary, and naturally she and broad-jawed CIA colleague Ted Winter (Liev Schreiber) are asked to stay late to speak with a Russian who may have information of interest. But back upstairs, just moments before, an exchange with a green lower-level employee leads Salt to ask Winter, “Was I ever that young?” It’s coy because she’s a mature higher-up here, and the role (almost) never turns into vintage Jolie, like the Lara Croft Tomb Raider: Isle of Lost Panties sexploits some may anticipate.

Actually, strike that. After the Russian with the information accuses Salt of being a Russian spy, she freaks out and the goose chase begins — right in the CIA building. When she starts blacking out security cameras with a fire extinguisher and later her underwear, she quickly makes a tough case for her innocence. And thus panties do go on the loose after all, as they must. It feels like a bone thrown to male audience members to make up for a lack of sex.

The way Salt and her newly ex-colleagues kick off and engage in this security-nightmare hunt was one of my favorite bits, but for the wrong reasons. I may not be an expert on CIA protocol, but neither is anyone in the Salt research department, we learn. Meetings are given to any old Russian who strolls in the front door at closing time? And then security practically waves goodbye as he strolls back out after murdering three guards with shoe knives? The way that pseudo-intricate information is explained is silly, too. Those high-level agents restate technical terms and offer Encyclopedia Britannica definitions to no one in particular, or they ask each other dumb questions — What’s on the second floor? — that they really ought to know the answers to, all so that a colleague can essentially explain it to the audience. It’s a lazy, transparent method of exposition.

And the chase for Salt continues for the duration. The additional elements introduced into the film serve to further complicate the principal characters’ allegiances and identities. Sappy flashbacks to Salt’s courtship and marriage hint at her husband standing for the only true element in her convoluted life. The inclusion of a Cold War factor even complicates the allegiances of the audience, like when it seems we’re meant to actively root for the assassination of the president of the United States. That feels a little weird. Other times, like in a White House war room bunker, things for a moment get downright Strangelove-y. Salt hinges on the wholesale acceptance of the Jolie character as a badass whose ultimate fighting skills, toughness, and quick wits make her unstoppable. But when the majority of the narrative’s propulsion gets as goofy as it does, this is harder to fall for. That said, those viewers who show for the sake of the stunt work won’t be disappointed. As put by my incidental seatmate: “Never-ending stunts. Outstanding. A+.”

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