Reviewed by: Jeff Robson

With Bourne having apparently made his final bow and the rebooted Bond stuck in limbo due to MGM’s financial problems, now would seem an ideal moment to plug the gap with a spy thriller that’s both exciting and believable.

Unfortunately, Salt singularly fails to accomplish that particular mission, squandering a solid premise with a series of increasingly ludicrous plot developments and failing to make its central character either an iconic screen presence or a recognisable human being.

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The opening scenes, where Jolie’s CIA operative Evelyn Salt is tortured by some sinister North Koreans while wearing what appears to be a set of Agent Provocateur lingerie, gives an early warning that the film (which has been swimming around the studios for a bit, initially touted as a vehicle for Tom Cruise) isn’t quite sure whether it wants to be a relatively serious take on the realities of modern-day espionage or yet another Angelina-as-Superwoman fantasy.

She’s eventually freed through constant pestering of the authorities by her husband, devoted and sensitive arachnologist Mike (August Diehl). Two years later, she’s living in domestic bliss in Washington, safely ensconced behind a desk. But then a high-level Russian defector wanders into town with devastating news. An entire cadre of deep cover KGB assassins, trained and indoctrinated from childhood were planted in American society at the height of the Cold War and one of them is about to be activated. Her name? Take a wild guess.

Before you can say ‘Anna Chapman’ Salt is on the run, desperate to clear her name and find Mike, who she’s convinced has been kidnapped by the villainskis to make her co-operate. Meanwhile boss and mentor Liev Schreiber tries to convince spycatcher Chiwetel Ejiofor that she’s a good egg really. But as Salt finds out more about her past, and her actions become increasingly suspicious, even he begins to wonder...

A nice idea, indeed, ripe for a Bourne-ish examination of whether a spy’s life is ever really their own and whether or not they are completely defined by their brutal, duplicitous trade – with plenty of scope for ‘take on all comers’ action too, of course. But the film decides to bolt the idea on to a gormlessly apocalyptic scenario when something more low-key would have served just as well.

It also operates in just as much of a geopolitical never-neverland as The Expendables. For all the shockwaves generated by the news that Russia was still spying on America, Ms Chapman and the rest weren’t really trying to initiate World War Three. The extent to which the present Russian government is aware of this team of red ninjas poised to open up an extremely large can of whupass on a nation that’s now a key trading partner is one that the film could have answered with a single line of dialogue – and set up another potentially interesting theme, of rogue agents and old-school Cold War certainties colliding with a greyer, more pragmatic age.

That it either forgot to put this line of dialogue in, or couldn’t be bothered to, exposes the film’s key weakness. It wants to be taken seriously but eschews the time and effort required to build a believable story and characters in favour of dazzling the retina with another car chase or face-off.

These are reasonably well-staged but you tend to expect excellence as standard in that department nowadays. There is one twist I didn’t see coming (but I’m terrible at spotting them) and the middle section does a reasonable job of exploiting the darker, more ambiguous side of Jolie’s action-woman persona.

But there’s always a “hang on; surely...” moment not far away and by the time the climax arrives the procession of disguises, double-crosses and dust-ups has become frankly wearying. If it weren’t so po-faced it might pass as a bit of good, guilty fun. The best Bonds (even the most believable ones) had a bit of a twinkle in their eye. No such luck here; its portentous, humourless tone is as unchanging as La Jolie’s ‘bad smell under the nose’ pout.

She’s proved what a talented actress she can be in films like Changeling and A Mighty Heart, so why she feels the need to periodically spend 90-odd minutes throwing herself on, off and around things remains a bit of a mystery to me. Salt isn’t as far-fetched as Wanted or as ploddingly tedious as the brace of Tomb Raiders but her expression of slightly aggrieved doggedness has remained a constant throughout. Is the housekeeping budget chez Brangelina so tight that she has to do a popcorner every year or so?

Her over-qualified supporting cast have very little to work on and fail to make much of an impression. Director Noyce, who created a masterclass in tension and a compelling human drama with his Hollywood calling card Dead Calm, orchestrates the set-pieces with reasonable panache. But his best moments, like his star’s, have come when he operates on a smaller, more personal canvas – Rabbit-Proof Fence and The Quiet American are a world away from this kind of multiplex fodder in both tone and quality.

It passes the time reasonably well, but you’d be better off watching one of the better Bonds or any of the Bournes on DVD. The ending hints at similar sequel/franchise possibilities. But, as everybody knows, too much salt is bad for you. And it doesn’t always disguise the fact that the food itself is unappetising.

Reviewed on: 26 Aug 2010
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A CIA agent goes on the run when a Russian defector names her as a deep cover assassin set to trigger a plot against the United States.
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