The echoes of the Bourne movies are impossible to miss. Preternaturally gifted assassin protagonist—check. Assassin goes rogue—check. Shadowy puppet-masters attempt to determine just what the titular assassin is up to—check. Assassin may have grudging allies among the puppet-masters—check. Highly choreographed on-location action scenes—check. Explosions, gun fights, and improbable leaps from one moving vehicle to another—check, check, check. Evelyn Salt might be more likely to use a maxipad to staunch blood flow from a bullet wound (which is actually kind of hilarious and awesome), but other than that, she and Jason Bourne are essentially the same character, right down to the chiseled physique, stoic demeanor, and ninja-like reflexes.
But despite the glaring similarities between Salt and Bournes Identity, Supremacy, and Ultimatum, Salt doesn’t begin to measure up to its predecessors. It’s not a problem of execution, though: Salt might be a knock-off, but it’s not a cheap knock-off. Angelina Jolie was born to play superhuman roles like this, and she’s backed up by a great supporting cast, including Liev Schreiber, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and August Diehl. Director Phillip Noyce is no Paul Greengrass, but he’s talented enough to keep the energy up and pull off a few rollickingly good sequences.
No, the problem with Salt is in the fundamentals, past the look-alike plots into the storytelling itself. The Bourne movies might not be cinéma vérité, but they take place in a recognizable contemporary world. Salt, by contrast, is utter nonsense—worse, dated nonsense, like someone awkwardly dolled up a forgotten McCarthy-era screenplay in modern-day garb and CGI. And why the hell would anyone want to do that?
Whatever now-ness the movie has is owed to Jolie, who can’t look dated to save her life. She plays Evelyn Salt, an elite CIA operative who is released from a North Korean jail thanks to the dogged efforts of her German boyfriend, Mike (Diehl), only to have her life turned upside-down all over again when a Russian defector, Orlov (Daniel Olbrychski), names her as a Russian mole. Counter-intelligence, led by Peabody (Ejiofor), clamps down hard, while Salt’s superior, Winter (Schreiber), insists that she’s innocent. As for Salt, she’s concerned mainly for Mike’s safety because whether she’s been framed or burned, Mike, now her husband, will be in grave danger. Desperate, Salt makes a run for it, with Peabody, Winter, and countless extras in mad pursuit.
There’s more: a crazy Russian plot to embed child sleeper agents in American families and a crazier Russian plot to initiate World War III in the most insanely convoluted way possible. None of it is remotely believable, on any level, but Jolie runs around and looks hot and wears a bunch of different wigs (blonde! brunette! long! short! bangs! hat!), and that’s probably the real point of the movie in the end.
I make fun, but Jolie truly is good at looking super-tough and then, in a few key moments, letting the mask drop. Suddenly, her arms are too thin, her shoulders are slight, and her eyes are tired—she looks acutely vulnerable—but then the moment passes, and she’s hard-eyed and invincible once more. It’s a neat trick, perfect for this type of material, but that’s really all she can do with her far-too-mysterious character. A mysterious past is one thing (not to harp, but that’s Bourne’s schtick as well), but Salt has a mysterious present, as well. She is all enigma, all wry I-know-more-than-you-do smiles. There’s nothing for viewers to hold onto but the fair certainty that a movie star won’t actually launch nuclear weapons as part of crazy Russian plot No. 2. And that’s not enough.
By keeping the audience entirely in the dark about Salt’s hopes, fears, motives, and plans, screenwriter Kurt Wimmer damns the movie to superficiality. We can’t invest emotionally in Jolie’s character. We can’t root for her or against her. We can’t love her or hate her. We can only appreciate how cool she looks jumping from car to car during a chase scene. And that’s fun, I guess, but why settle for that?
Maybe the fog at the movie’s center wouldn’t have been so annoying if the plot weren’t so bad, a bizarre cross between Bourne, The Manchurian Candidate, and hot air about so-called anchor babies. It’s laughable, literally laughable, which is a problem. I’m a big believer in the idea that the best action movies (or at least the most effective) play on deep-seated contemporary anxieties. The Bourne movies’ paranoid, corrupt, uncentered universe gets under my skin because it’s so recognizable, but Salt might be the least zeitgeisty action movie I’ve ever seen. I’m not saying Russia can’t be scary (creepy KGB guys back in power! ruthless organized crime! unsecured nuclear weapons! fire everywhere!), but the Cold War is over, and pretending that we still live in a black-and-white bipolar world (if we ever did) takes all the electricity out of your story. By the time Salt introduced a Russian vessel straight out of The Hunt for Red October—with big fur hats, “comrade” this and that, and a score blatantly ripping off Basil Poledouris’s iconic theme—I was biting my lip to keep from giggling.