From the first moment you see Angelina Jolie in her blonde hair and office clothes she already looks like someone in disguise. That kicks off the central mystery of this movie and its main character. Of course, I have no idea why director Phillip Noyce preferred instead to start with scenes of Evelyn Salt being tortured and released from a grimy North Korean prison. Later on you realize that the flashback sets up a lot of the emotional history of the character, but at the start all it does is add confusion to the mix. Unlike the beginning of the similar-yet-superior Bourne Identity movie, these events are not directly linked to the main story.
Once the movie cuts back to Salt working in the CIA offices (under the guise of an oil company) in the USA, it’s like the movie starts again, with Jolie in her normal-person drag as the mild-mannered corporate executive. That “cover” doesn’t last very long before a Russian informant walks into the CIA office and offers to trade information about a plot to activate sleeper agents for an imminent attack on the Russian president visiting the US. For a kicker, he names Salt as the assassin [cue dramatic music]! That’s when the action kicks into gear, as the informant stages his own escape while the Agency starts to question Salt. Partly because of the opening scene in Korea, we are already skeptical of her true identity, so it’s not long before she also breaks out in order to “look for her husband”. As the chase begins, I am reminded again of Jason Bourne fleeing the American agents in Switzerland. In fact, Salt even hides out on the window ledge and scales a wall just like Bourne did. With her skills (Salt can jump between moving vehicles), situation (both good and bad sides are after her), and questions about her identity (who is she, and who does she really work for?), Salt is pretty much a female version of Bourne. So why doesn’t this movie work as well as the Bourne trilogy did?
To be fair, Salt is still a pretty enjoyable movie, but the directing just wasn’t as smooth. Noyce has actually got a lot of action/suspense experience, including many of the Tom Clancy movies, such as Patriot Games, but he just doesn’t have the same kind of style that Doug Liman or Paul Greengrass brought to Bourne. There are lots of quick cuts between angles that are too confusing and chaotic. Having Jolie in the lead was good for the box office, but she’s too glam and polished. I never once believed that she wasn’t a double or sleeper agent. She’s got a bit of a fembot vibe going, which doesn’t serve you well if you want the audience to relate to her. Thirdly, the stakes seem way too high. First she’s supposedly going to kill the Russian president, then she’s even going after the American president (then if you can believe it, the stakes get even higher!) Considering this is supposed to be one agent’s mission (Didn’t they already introduce the idea of a sleeper-agent army? What are the other sleepers supposed to do after Salt is done, fill out paperwork?) it seems too bogus for a “realistic” thriller like this one.
Nevertheless, in my book, a slick spy movie is better than most other kinds of movies. Watching Jolie run and jump and blow things up is still pretty exciting. As I mentioned, the “Who is Salt?” mystery could have used a bit more subtlety, but I am definitely looking forward to any sequels. (4 out of 5)