Salt (2010) is Philip Noyce’s attempt at a female James Bond (or maybe Jason Bourne), and while it does try, with plenty of convoluted conspiracies and assassination attempts and slick action to hold it all together, it still comes up short.
Originally, the script (by Equilibrium and Ultraviolet director Kurt Wimmer) was about a spy named Edwin A. Salt, and Tom Cruise was briefly interested in the role, until he decided the story was too similar to the Mission: Impossible sequel he was about to make. Angelina Jolie eventually became interested in the part, and soon the main character was gender-swapped to CIA agent Evelyn Salt.
The movie begins with Salt imprisoned in a North Korean prison camp, presumably for being a spy, but your guess is as good as mine. She takes quite a beating at the hands of her captors, until some U.S. agents led by her boss Ted Winter (Liev Schreiber) fly over and do a prisoner exchange to rescue her. Since this rescue mission goes against protocols, she questions why they expended this much effort to save her. It turns out she owes her freedom to her boyfriend, who started lots of petitions to get her released. Petitions motivating the government? Already it’s unrealistic.
Skip ahead a few years and the two are now happily married; she’s a spy and he’s an arachnologist (i.e., he studies spiders). One of these jobs sounds potentially dangerous and extremely stressful, and the other one is espionage. Conveniently, it’s their anniversary, and the two talk about romantic dinner plans that will most certainly happen, after which Salt heads to work, because what could go wrong?
At her desk, Salt is shown doing important tasks like teaching herself how to properly fold napkins. Her boss Winter informs her that a Russian defector has been captured, and it’s her duty to interrogate him.
Salt complies and enters the interrogation room. The Russian tells a story about spies and orphans in which he suggests that Salt is a sleeper agent sent to America as a child in order to assassinate the Russian president on his upcoming visit—a day known as “Day X”. All the characters ignore how incredibly situational this plan is, and the questioning ends. Turns out the defector wasn’t bluffing, and as soon as he’s inside an elevator, he murders the two agents escorting him.
Salt remains in the interrogation room while the agents consider what to do with her, as they now suspect her of being a double agent for the Russians. After they become alerted to the defector’s actions, the agents respond by attempting to detain Salt with excessive force.
Salt takes advantage of her extensive training to outsmart and out-skill her assailants by using her surroundings cleverly. This includes a bit where she covers up a security camera with her panties and MacGyvers a fire extinguisher into a missile launcher. She eventually escapes and makes her way to a hotel, where she pops out her colored contacts and dyes her hair jet black and plots her next move.
In the hunt for Salt, Winter is joined by Agent Peabody (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who’s convinced she really is a sleeper agent, because she grew up an orphan in Russia. Meanwhile, Salt stakes out the location where the Russian president will be making a speech. She sets off a bomb underneath where he’s speaking and appears to succeed in killing him, confirming she really is a sleeper agent.
She gets captured, but soon escapes again, and meets up with other sleeper agents. We see flashback sequences that reveal the brainwashing she received in Russia as a child. Her next mission is to infiltrate the White House, and to do this, she puts on her strangest disguise yet: she becomes a male NATO liaison who looks like a diminutive version of a young Elvis.
Another sleeper agent carries out a suicide bombing inside the White House, so the president is hustled into an underground bunker along with his staff. Here, Winter reveals that he, too, is a Russian sleeper agent. He slaughters a whole bunch of people, incapacitates the president, and begins aiming nuclear missiles at Iran and Saudi Arabia. Apparently, the end goal is to get the entire Muslim world enraged at the United States, but I don’t think we need much help in that department.
Winter then sees a news report revealing that the Russian president was never assassinated; Salt used the venom from one of her husband’s spiders (yes, really) to induce paralysis in him. Unfortunately, Winter realizes too late that Salt overcame her brainwashing a long time ago. Salt stops the missiles and kills Winter, and the movie ends with Peabody letting her get away (by jumping out of a helicopter!).
The movie goes to great lengths to obscure who Salt is working for and which side she’s on, almost to the point of absurdity. It feels like we get a new piece of evidence every other scene that shifts her allegiances and rewrites her backstory. By the end of the film, it’s doubtful even the screenwriter knows who the hell Salt is.
Despite a few early surprises, the movie becomes downright formulaic: Salt goes on the run. Salt does cool spy things. Salt gets captured. Before the scene can even end, Salt has miraculously escaped again. Repeat until the movie ends. For a story built on unexpected twists, this monotony doesn’t work well, and instead builds her up to be one of those invincible action heroes who can do anything and always come out on top, no matter what.
Salt’s generic plot is another of its weaker aspects. It’s a cookie-cutter “Russians are the bad guys” story, and before you’ve even seen it, it already seems vaguely familiar. The Cold War ended in the ‘90s, and yet in the world of Salt, relations between the two countries don’t appear to have changed much. This could possibly be an homage to old Cold War spy films, but it’s doubtful that was the intention.
Eventually, things do pick up a bit, and the film becomes less of a game of tag and more of a spy movie. Unfortunately, these scenes don’t last long, and they lead to a senseless whirlwind of plot twists, each trying to one-up the last. To rub salt (hah!) in the wound, most of the twists unravel into something meaningless, or something that had long since become apparent.
For raw action scenes alone, Salt isn’t bad. It doesn’t skip a beat jumping from one action-packed moment to another, and the only real downside is the aforementioned sense that the danger is manufactured and shallow. Crazy scenes are where Salt really shines; Jolie jumping from the back of one semi truck to another makes for good, simple fun, but whether or not it’s actually a believable course of action is another story.
At the end, nothing really feels like it gets resolved, and everything appears to have doubled back to the starting point. This ending seems to have been primarily made with a sequel in mind. Well, with the Cold War theme, you can’t really go wrong with a movie title like Salt II.
Overall, this is another action movie undermined by unrealistic character motivations and incredibly far-fetched schemes. And after everything that happens, the movie doesn’t end on the expected bang, but fizzles out into disappointment. Salt ultimately amounts to an insignificant action thriller that only really succeeds in leaving the viewer wanting more substance. The plot might have been interesting, but most of the good parts are overshadowed by its apparent need to obfuscate important information, and vain attempts to shock the viewer with its rollercoaster plot twists.
The movie also suffers from a pacing problem; most of its already short 90-minute runtime feels like the introductory act. The whole thing comes off like a highlight reel of action set pieces until we’re well into the final stretch of the movie. If you’re looking for mindless fun, Salt might fit the bill, but the Bond and Bourne movies do mindless fun way better than this.