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?
The opening half hour fakes us out a bit, because it’s designed to recall the Bourne films, which in their intricate, Hitchcockian, whiplash-camera paranoia are plausible (by the skin of their teeth). A prelude sequence, with Jolie’s Evelyn Salt stripped down to her bra and panties, bloodied and writhing in a North Korean torture den, establishes that the director, Phillip Noyce (Clear and Present Danger), isn’t above using cheap exploitation tricks, with a wink, to hook us. The film then leaps ahead two years, when a Russian defector named Orlov (Daniel Olbrychski) wanders into Langley and makes the following statement: that the Russians, going back to the days of Lee Harvey Oswald, have created an underground army of sleeper agents and assassins, recruited and programmed from childhood to infiltrate America. All of them are waiting to strike when the order comes. He then announces that Salt, the agent who’s interrogating him, is one of those secret Russian operatives.
The premise of Salt may be hokum, but it cleverly braids together old Cold War tensions with new fears of al-Qaeda, topping it off with touches from The Manchurian Candidate and Children of the Damned. For all that, the picture wastes no time spinning into high-velocity lone-wolf action mode, as Salt, accused of treason, rushes to escape her CIA colleagues, including the trusting, sympathetic Winter (Liev Schreiber, making bureaucratic bluster sexy) and the skeptical, by-the-book Peabody (Chiwetel Ejiofor). We assume, initially, that she can’t be guilty of what she’s been accused of. But then why is she acting guilty? We certainly know why she scurries around barefoot, using her lace underwear to cover a surveillance camera or a maxi pad to bandage a wound. Salt is like Bourne or Bond recast as a feminist pinup.
On the run, she builds a rocket launcher out of a swivel chair and a fire extinguisher. During a highway chase, she leaps from one speeding truck to the next, and she charges into rooms and mows down row upon row of assailants using fists, feet, and guns. As the camera swoops directly over her, she hangs from a ledge of the apartment building where she lives with her kindly German-national spider-researcher husband (August Diehl), whom she fell in love with when she was busy recruiting him for the CIA. Jolie executes all of this with a terse, nearly android-like efficiency. She still retains a hint of sensuality in those satin-pillow lips, only now that famous feature is set off by a body so uncurvaceously skinny that her entire physique seems to have been stripped down for action. There are no shadings to Angelina Jolie in Salt; she’s all sinew and will. In that sense, though, she’s the very model of a modern kinetic movie star.
If Salt were nothing but chase sequences, it might grow tedious, but Noyce, working from a script by Kurt Wimmer (who co-wrote the elegant remake of The Thomas Crown Affair), builds nuts-and-bolts suspense into the question of who Salt is, which side she’s on — and why the Russians, in one very crafty and elaborate set piece, would even attempt to assassinate their own president. Salt has enough high-octane reversals to keep you guessing right to the end. Even if you don’t entirely buy any of them. B