Angelina Jolie’s struggle to find a career niche, in spite of, and because of, her colossal magazine-cover stardom, has led her to a career juggling two basic types of parts. Stunningly statuesque amazons, full of superhuman bravado and barely detectable humanity, in her big-ticket fare (Tomb Raider, Wanted, even, after a fashion, Girl, Interrupted), have balanced a parade of distraught, assailed, but unshakeably strong-willed, maternally devoted characters, in her would-be serious fare (Beyond Borders, A Mighty Heart, Changeling). As glib as such an analysis usually is, nonetheless I’ll venture for argument’s sake that the first type of role is close to how the public sees her, and the second type is how she’d like to see herself. Salt, interestingly enough, forges a synthesis of these two roles. As Evelyn Salt, she plays a CIA agent who is tough as nails physically and mentally, strong enough to withstand vicious North Korean torture in the opening scenes, and take all kinds of incredulous punishment in the course of the film’s subsequent on-the-run action. And yet she’s also unflinchingly human in placing the life of her husband Mike Krause (August Diehl), above all other things, including personal well-being and the national interest. Her husband is a sweet-tempered arachnologist: Evelyn seduced him once upon a time because he had easy access to the North Korean border, but their affair soon evolved into her true love when he raised all hell to save her from being beaten up by Asian sadists in her underwear, a necessary step in the formation of any stable relationship.
Cunningly, then, Salt proceeds to explore one side of Jolie before giving birth to the other, which, ironically, makes it the star vehicle she’s needed for about ten years now, in the same way Humphrey Bogart needed High Sierra in order to balance his screen persona before becoming a true movie star. Jolie’s already a true movie star, but Salt is one of her most satisfying vehicles to date, at least in terms of her own screen persona, because of this balance. Evelyn finds herself a wanted woman when a seamy Russian ex-spymaster, Orlov (Daniel Olbrychski), under the cover of officially defecting, blows her cover as a Soviet mole, planted decades ago as part of a colossal project to undermine the American state. He wants her to assassinate the Russian president (Olek Krupa), visiting New York for the US Vice President’s funeral, as the gambit, as Orlov and a cabal of fanatical Soviet hold-outs attempt to put the long-delayed but still viable plan of conquest into action. Evelyn is driven initially, it seems, by urgent concern for her husband, knowing Orlov’s fellow conspirators will have snatched him to ensure cooperation, and she stages a lengthy, bone-jarring escape, first from the CIA station in downtown New York and then from pursuing agents, sent after her by her fellow operative and friend Ted Winter (Liev Schreiber), and hard-ass Peabody (Chiwetel Ejiofor). Much running, jumping, motorcycle-riding and dangling from the roofs and, occasionally, the sides of trucks ensues, before Evelyn appears to do the unthinkable and goes through the motions of assassinating the Russian President.
As a movie, as opposed to a movie star vehicle, Salt is far less compelling. The political themes are hilariously retrograde, full of dubious displacement: it’s the North Koreans dealing out water torture, the Commies are still the bad guys, and in Salt 2 Evelyn will certainly save Hitler’s brain. Salt is certainly not about politics, of course, but about constant thrills and twists, as Evelyn’s true loyalties and motives, and even actions, are kept as enigmatic as possible for as long as possible, before she emerges as a straight-up good guy who's just misunderstood. This is really more a twisted family drama, with Evelyn in combat against a ruthless patriarchy, Orlov as false, perverting father figure, Winter as treacherous brother-lover, and new-age Mike a girly-man victim of the fierce old-school machismo of these politicised bullies. Evelyn must escape a particularly warped familial psychodrama – she’s repeatedly welcomed back as “Sister” by the other products of the project’s brainwashing training programme, and Evelyn fights to redefine herself. Looked at in such a fashion, Evelyn’s final, forbidden come-on to Winter in trying to penetrate the sealed room in which he’s preparing the apocalyptic consummation of this drama, takes on perverse overtones indeed. This is not to say the film delves into this theme with any depth or even apparent self-awareness, but it does bubble away intriguingly within the whirlybird narrative. Evelyn, like Jason Bourne, is compelled to get revenge on the people who moulded her into a fearsome beast, but the storyline also displays the fingerprints of writer Kurt Wimmer, who offered the joyously juvenile power fantasy of Equilibrium (2002). Many mainstream action films with female heroes often end up turning those females into men, metaphorically: Salt takes this to a logical place as Evelyn goes the full drag-king to infiltrate the White House. As in Equilibrium, Evelyn is a product of a totalitarian system that, in betraying her, invites destruction from its own perfect creation, and the need to suppress an emotional response in order to pass a torturous test recurs too. Her subsequent unleashing of naked, exterminating fury, provides the film’s best scene. Evelyn, in seeming to have cleared the hurdle of not only assassinating the Russian President but then escaping from police custody, makes it to Orlov’s base of operations, only to see Mike gunned down in front of her. Such is Orlov’s final act of bastard cunning in testing Evelyn’s loyalty, one she passes, but the moment she’s alone with Orlov, she smashes a bottle of vodka and stabs him to death with the jagged glass, before slaughtering the rest of his crew with ice-cold bravura.
Philip Noyce’s retreat from his own (rather drab) stab at a late-career resurgence as a serious filmmaker, with Rabbit-Proof Fence and The Quiet American (both 2002), sees him back in the territory of his ‘90s pay-cheque action movies. He’s keeping up with the times here, and Salt, stylistically, is an attempt to graft the more traditional type of action-thriller dynamic onto the template presented by Paul Greengrass’s Bourne films, the furious whip-pans and jump-cuts, the fragmented impressionism, of that series’ divisively received action scenes, attached to a story that offers clearer revenge motifs and more familiar generic structuring, heightened melodramatic plot stakes, and a less vague emotional context. But the blend doesn’t really work as well as it might have, because the non-stop pace of the Bourne films was at least attuned to its alienated sheen of existential angst, life reduced to a series of bitter battles revolving around the need to penetrate a riddle that offered no final hope, only clarity of scepticism. Salt, on the other hand, builds emotional climaxes that are unfortunately muted and rendered near-ineffectual because of the film’s perpetual restlessness and taciturn, businesslike facade. Evelyn’s physical daredevilry, jumping off speeding trains and out of moving helicopters, and the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it exposition, like her use of spider venom, from amongst Mike’s collection of pet arachnids, to synthesise a temporarily paralysing toxin, are so cartoonishly improbable and speed by at such a pace that they become something close to moving wallpaper. You sit and watch it all pass by in a brain-numbing blur, all too aware that you’re watching total balderdash, rather than making the hard yards of forcing the suspension of disbelief.
The climax of the second act, which I’ve already mentioned, for instance, ought to be the end of the film, but it is instead more a way-station, on the way to more, far less personally urgent and therefore altogether less engaging action, in which Evelyn has to try and forestall Winter’s efforts to start nuclear war. Salt finally illustrates something that’s fascinatingly, persistently problematic with the modern Hollywood action film, so fixated with maintaining a nerveless, spectacular kind of adrenalized rush that it neglects the potential weight of its themes and characterisations. Stretched a little further, Salt could have yielded the same kind of emotional punch as Sydney Pollack’s ‘70s thrillers, or the gritty, voluble engagement of Brian De Palma, or even a simple, pulpy cheer-along like, well, Equilibrium, but finally, curiously, teasingly, doesn’t deliver anything with simple completeness, except the spectacle of motion, like it’s the Olympics of cinema. Like Evelyn Salt herself, these contemporary action films seem to feel a need to keep their emotional engagement utterly contoured to the vicissitudes of cool efficiency. Jolie’s game commitment to her role serves her well, at least: her gradual shift from emotive, concerned Angelina to hard, imperious, borderline-sociopathic Angelina, gives focus to her performance and provides what dramatic weight there is. The very finish is easy to write off as a clear gateway to a sequel, but it is at least admirable in openly embracing a lack of resolution. The image of Evelyn, dripping wet, bloodied and battered, running off into the night to do battle with an unseen army of ghostly infiltrating warriors, presents less the comforting vision of an undaunted hero than of one whose own interior psychic war has metastasized into a full-blown psychotic nightmare.