Movies: Salt * *
(12A, General release)
As if determined to prove right from the start of Salt that her spindly frame is no barrier to being an effective action hero, Angelina Jolie wastes no time in getting her hands dirty and knocking seven bells out of massed enemies.
Which is just as well, because in Phillip Noyce's frantic spy thriller just about everyone is out to get her.
Written by Kurt Wimmer and Brian Helgeland, the film was originally conceived as a vehicle for Tom Cruise, who turned it down because it seemed too similar to the Mission Impossible series he'd just concluded. Cue a major rewrite, and the decision to approach La Jolie about fronting the first ever female spy franchise. S
he's centre stage in Salt for just about every frame, and does a pretty good job of fronting up a relentlessly hectic action film. But if Jolie is not the film's principal problem, it has plenty of others to be getting along with. And, after a reasonably efficient start, Salt soon descends, if I may use a popular colloquial phrase, into a hot mess.
We first meet Evelyn Salt in the bowels of a North Korean army prison, where the guards do dreadful but happily unspecified things to her to get her to admit she's an American spy.
She doesn't crack, and eventually her husband Michael and the US State Department manage to get her freed. Back in the free world and happy as Larry, she's about to head home from the CIA's Washington HQ one night when a man turns up claiming he's a Russian spy and asking for asylum.
When Salt interviews Orlov (Daniel Olbrychski), he describes to her an elaborate plot to assassinate the current Russian president, who will be in New York in two days' time for the funeral of the American vice-president. The killing will aim to fatally destabilise US-Soviet relations, and it will be carried out by a Russian sleeper agent called -- you've guessed it -- Evelyn Salt.
On hearing this, Salt's immediate superior and friend Ted Winter (Liev Schreiber) doesn't know what to think, but counter-intelligence officer Peabody (Chiwetel Ejiofor) wants her apprehended on the spot. Suspecting she's about to be 'rendered', Salt goes on the run, miraculously surviving several pile-ups and high-speed crashes in a desperate chase across DC before she manages to give her pursuers the slip.
We, the audience, naturally assume she's innocent -- this is what happens in these Bourne-type films, and besides Angelina Jolie is too good-looking to be a villain. Soon, though, we're reassessing our sunny opinion of her, because Salt then travels to New York and seems intent on carrying out that potentially calamitous assassination. From then on, we're pushed and pulled as we try to figure out who's good, who's bad and where it's all going.
Nowhere very nice, as it turns out, and before it's done Salt will almost have succeeded in plunging us into global thermonuclear war. But the grandiose nature of that denouement highlights the film's biggest underlying problem. The truly clever spy thrillers, like the two Bourne films that Paul Greengrass directed, manage to hang on to a certain gritty believability no matter how intricate the car chases and fight scenes become.
In Salt, however, the action is so relentlessly ridiculous that it becomes very difficult not to regard the whole thing as an extended joke. More troubling than the sight of 90-pound Angelina flinging 200-pound blokes about the place like rag dolls is the fact that no attempt is made at any point to respect the laws of physics. If a car plummets off a flyover at high speed, there will be consequences on impact with terra firma for even as perfect a face as Jolie's.
It's glib, but not knowingly so, and even actors of the calibre of Liev Schreiber fail to lift their characters above the one-dimensional limitations of the script. Interesting, though, that the Russian baddie is back in vogue, and bad news for character actors of middle-eastern origin around the globe.