Though every review of Salt notes that it's ludicrous, critics say Angelina Jolie makes it an enjoyable (albeit mindless) thriller, and reaffirms that she's one of the few actresses who can compete with any male action star.
Angelina plays CIA agent Evelyn Salt, who goes on the run after a Russian defector (Daniel Olbrychski) accuses her of being a spy. She claims she's trying to save her civilian husband (August Diehl), and her CIA boss (Liev Schreiber) believes her, while the agency's counterintelligence officer (Chiwetel Ejiofor), does not.
Reviewers say the film, which opens today, is "essentially one endless chase scene," but that's acceptable, since it doesn't aim to be much more. Salt is still "a better Bond movie than most recent Bond movies," plus it's, "fun, dammit. So who cares, really, if it's trash?"
Below, the reviews:
[Angelina Jolie] brings the conviction to her role that such a movie requires. She throws herself into it with animal energy. Somehow, improbably, she doesn't come off as a superhero (although her immunity suggests one), but as a brave and determined fighter. How does she look? She looks beautiful by default, and there's a scene in an office where she looks back over her shoulder to talk with Schreiber and you think, oh, my. But neither Jolie nor Noyce overplays her beauty, and she gets gritty and bloody and desperate, and we get involved.
Although "Salt" finds an ingenious way to overcome history and resurrect the Russians as movie villains, neither that nor any other elements of the plot demand analysis. It's all a hook to hang a thriller on. It's exhilarating to see a genre picture done really well.
While preposterous at every turn, "Salt" is a better Bond movie than most recent Bond movies, as its makers keep the stunts real and severely limit CGI gimmickry. This is a slick, light summer entertainment that should throw considerable coin into Sony's coffers while re-establishing (if it needs re-establishing) Jolie's bona fides as an action star.
For much of its running time, Salt effectively, though not particularly intelligently, teases the audience with slivers of Jolie's past. But intelligence isn't really the point. Noyce's past excursions into action filmmaking, most notably the Harrison Ford-as-Jack Ryan films, have been a bit flavorless, but here he delivers one from the gut. Borrowing a page from the North By Northwest playbook, Salt is essentially one endless chase scene, one that doesn't let up and that refreshingly relies far more heavily on real-world stunt work than obvious CGI assistance. Metal twists, flames crackle, and it all feels disarmingly tangible.
A male action drama can be handed to any guy who looks fit enough to do a chin-up. (I mean, honestly: Ashton Kutcher in Killers?) The female action genre: that's pretty much Angelina Jolie. With her slim, voluptuous body, her Easter Island-idol facial features and that smoldering I-dare-you look, Jolie is one of the few contemporary star actresses who doesn't seem locked in perpetual girlhood; she was born grown up, sure of herself and ready to rumble. That makes her perfect for ballsy ladies like tomb raider Lara Croft, the assassin in Mr. & Mrs. Smith (targeting her real-life beau Brad Pitt), the daredevil pilot in Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, the seductive witch-goddess of Beowulf and a secret-society supervixen - the definitive Jolie character - in Wanted. She's got what no other Hollywood woman even tries for, and which is embodied among recent international stars perhaps only by Hong Kong action star Michelle Yeoh: feminismo.
There's another side to that equation, though, beginning with the much-publicized fact that Kurt Wimmer's screenplay was written with a male star in mind, very likely Tom Cruise. (Indeed, "Salt" is conceptually pretty close to Cruise's underperforming summer release, "Knight and Day.") Very little of the script was rewritten when Jolie was cast - an intriguing move toward Hollywood gender equality, blah blah blah. But that also means Jolie is stuck in a Tom Cruise role, playing a character who seems borderline nuts, who exhibits no sexuality and hardly any psychological life, and whose personal history consists of plot points with no emotional impact.
[Jolie's] casting makes all the difference in a part that would be completely standard if a man played it. (One of the well-known ironies of Jolie's success in "Salt" is that screenwriter Kurt Wimmer originally wrote the role for a man.). It is the contrast between what cultural conditioning in general and Hollywood movies in particular tell us about women's roles and what Jolie can in fact accomplish that holds our interest here.
The considerable talents of a strong supporting cast, which includes Chiwetel Ejiofor, Liev Schreiber and Andre Braugher, go untapped. The only distinguishing feature to this by-the-book thriller is Jolie, who gets pummeled as good as she pummels. Director Phillip Noyce doesn't hesitate to show men viciously beating up on her, and a climactic mano a mano fight with Schreiber is surprisingly vicious. She nonetheless remains impervious to injury or wear and tear.
It all happens in such a frenzy of momentum and on-the-fly exposition that some of the more preposterous elements in the story will strike you only in retrospect, after the helicopter leaps, the elevator-shaft daredevilry and the race-the-clock flirtation with thermonuclear war. But that it as it should be. Mr. Wimmer has constructed a puzzle just complicated enough to keep you alert while Mr. Noyce, a protean Australian craftsman whose other credits include "Patriot Games"and "Rabbit-Proof Fence,"throws the pieces in the air and watches them collide, explode and crash to the ground.
But Jolie doesn't seem entirely bored with the routine. She has a laugh or two at her bionic image: Evelyn is a woman who uses a maxi pad as a bandage, and this is a star who's OK spending her movie's last quarter looking like Hilary Swank playing Jason Bourne. But at this point, Jolie's ultraness needs a foil. "Salt'' concludes with the promise of a sequel. With any luck Queen Latifah will tempt fate and join the proceedings as Pepper.
As she tries to find her husband, and perhaps assassinate the Russian president, she's not quite sure who or what she is. And neither are we. Which is precisely why the whole thing works.
But we're equally in the dark regarding Ms. Jolie, upon whom this putative tent pole is propped. She may in fact be the perfect action avatar-she often looks like she popped out of a videogame, and her stardom seems to put her at an arm's length from humanity anyway. What is she, exactly? An actress. A megacelebrity. And, apparently, Hollywood's reigning female sex symbol. So where's the sex? For that matter, where's the humor? "Salt" has neither, and it seems to have become SOP for Ms. Jolie's on-screen personae to exist on a plane unsullied by desire, laughs or passion.
Schreiber and Ejiofor have the acting chops to keep you guessing. But it's Jolie's ferocity and feeling that make us stick with Salt as she predicts the coming of Day X, when Russian sleeper spies are meant to rise up and take America by force. A big topic for a piece of popcorn escapism. Whether you buy it or not, hang on for the ride. It's a twister.
A lack of plausibility used to be thought of as a liability in movies. When a critic, or an audience, complained that a plot twist was too luridly far-fetched to believe, that it stretched and snapped the bonds of reality (a rather vague concept, to be sure), that would generally go down as a negative assessment. Over the past couple of decades, though, expectations have shifted. Fantasy has leaked, like an oil spill, into everything, even naturalistic thrillers, and that has changed our relationship to them. Salt, a jacked-up espionage/action machine starring Angelina Jolie as a CIA superstar who may or may not be a Russian mole, is a movie I have no trouble calling flagrantly preposterous and over-the-top - impossible to buy on any sober, adult level. It's like a John le Carré double-agent yarn compacted into comic-book pulp as if by the makers of Con Air. Yet the movie doesn't pretend to be anything other than that; to call it out for being ludicrous would be like complaining that Superman flies. Besides, Salt knows how to stay one step ahead of you in devious, if jaw-droppingly contrived, ways. The movie is fun, dammit. So who cares, really, if it's trash?