Redundant conversations about celebrity culture and nauseating puns about table seasonings are inevitably attached to an Angelina Jolie film entitled Salt. A mix of trite Cold War thriller and earnest spy intrigue à la Sidney Bristow or Jason Bourne, Salt delivers enough swift kicks to the head that you almost forget you wanted something nuanced or complex. The film opens in North Korea where the evildoers du jour are torturing Evelyn Salt (Jolie) as she unconvincingly repeats “I am not a spy…I am a businesswoman.” As it turns out, of course, Salt works covert operations for the CIA. Freed through a diplomatic trade, she returns home to the normalcy of pushing papers for the agency and folding napkins in preparation for her wedding anniversary. None too soon, however, a mysterious and oddly well-informed Russian defector fingers our heroine as a mole. Her colleague, played by a furrow-browed Liev Schreiber, voices his doubts about the accusation, while a contrarian FBI agent — a role that demands little from Chiwetel Ejiofor — wants Salt detained immediately. Feeling trapped, and fearing for the safety of her husband, Salt displays her army-of-one capabilities, eluding homeland security and fleeing with suspicious intentions. What ensues is a typical cat-and-mouse chase that satisfyingly allows Salt to flaunt her feminine brains and brawn.
Director Phillip Noyce isn’t so much recycling the formulas of Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger as watering them down to essential action elements that barely register. Salt’s potential double-agent status feels randomly inconsequential, and her enemies are, coincidentally, the people who show up in her path. Fortunately, most of the mundane, if not flawed, plot is buried beneath well-honed physical action that rests on Jolie’s slight but confident shoulders, including a stairway murder near the end of the film that is as surprising as it is fierce. Although Salt couldn’t be more topical with the recent arrest of a Russian spy ring, and though it shares a name with the 1970s treaties (a more interesting innuendo than the stuff sitting on your table), this form of escapism doesn’t pretend to draw such correlations. Much like Alias, Salt leaves real-world believability behind in favor of base-level entertainment. Jolie adequately fills the shoes left empty by Tom Cruise when he vacated the lead role, and she’s up to the film’s physical demands. Her counterparts never stand a chance against her charisma — more Angelina Jolie than Evelyn Salt — and she even plays a pretty good young man with the help of facial prosthetics. Her character, however, is placid at best, and it never earns enough sympathy for us to care about what Salt 2 might have in store. The only emotional gravity you can find in Salt surrounds the cute little doggy that Evelyn must abandon to save the U.S. President (coincidentally played by a soap opera star) and the world. The plot holes are big enough to drive a North Korean submarine through, and the narrative is so deliberate it’s a little insulting, but Salt keeps running, jumping, shooting, kicking, and hitting, because in this film that’s all that matters.