Before becoming a CIA officer, Evelyn Salt (Angelina Jolie) swore an oath to duty, honor, and country. She will prove loyal to these when a defector accuses her of being a Russian sleeper spy. Salt goes on the run, using all her skills and years of experience as a covert operative to elude capture, protect her husband, and stay one step ahead of her colleagues at the CIA.
At various stages of Phillip Noyce’s foot-to-the-floor spy thriller, Angelia Jolie or her stunt double escapes from the clutches of the CIA, Secret Service and NYPD, jumps from the top of one speeding truck to another and shoots and karate kicks numerous foes, all while miraculously dodging countless bullets.
The greatest escape artist since Houdini? Maybe, but therein lies a warning: If you can disregard the laws of logic and suspend all critical judgment, Salt is enjoyable hokum, pure escapism dressed up in a highly polished, smart-looking and slick package.
Noyce describes Kurt Wimmer’s screenplay as a combination of historical fact and popcorn fiction. The factual bit is the notion that during the Cold War the Soviets installed sleeper spies in the West, part of a network of intelligence operatives who lived under assumed names for 15, 20 years or more. More questionable is this film’s scenario that this network would be activated on Day X, launching large-scale terrorist attacks in the US.
Taking over a role originally intended for Tom Cruise, Jolie plays Evelyn Salt, a CIA agent who, in the opening scene, is tortured by North Korean goons. Her boss and friend Ted Winter (a sly Liev Schreiber, all but winking at the camera) engineers her release after Evelyn’s boyfriend, later husband, threatens to blow the whistle.
Two years on, Washington, D.C.-based Evelyn is about to go home to celebrate their wedding anniversary when she’s asked to interrogate Russian defector Orlov (Daniel Olbrychski), who volunteers information about a plot to kill the Russian President during the upcoming funeral of the US Vice-President. Orlov names one of the undercover spies as Evelyn Salt, which she promptly denies. Orlov manages to escape, as does Evelyn (which doesn’t say a lot about the CIA’s security), pursued by the agency’s counter-intelligence expert Peabody (Chiwetel Ejiofor).
Not at all inconvenienced by the fact that nothing has been proven against Salt, the pursuit team shoots down the door of her apartment and Peabody fires a couple of shots at her—among the film’s most glaring errors of logic. Presumably the former CIA agent who served as the production’s technical adviser forgot to point out how things happen in the real world.
Thereafter the narrative darts off to Manhattan for the VP’s funeral, to the East River for a showdown with Orlov, and back to Washington for another wildly improbable sequence in the President’s bunker.
Noyce and Wimmer do succeed in keeping the audience guessing about Salt’s true identity and motives. But in Evelyn’s willingness to take out people who are supposedly on her side, and with all those errant bullets directed at her, the film has unfortunate similarities with that other preposterous thriller Knight and Day. Like Cruise in that film, the worst injury she sustains is a minor flesh wound.
Jolie handles the action scenes with athletic aplomb, a great advance on her Tomb Raider exploits, and changing the lead’s gender certainly spiced up the angle of the CIA agent/spouse relationship. But her husband Mike, a German arachnologist (there’s a clue in his collection of spiders) gets so little screen time, the actor, Inglourious Basterds’ August Diehl, is wasted.