Evelyn Salt (Angelina Jolie) is a decorated CIA operative with years of experience under her belt. Unfortunately, it’s years of experience in the most paranoid of all professions, so when a Russian defector (Daniel Olbrychski) claims she is secretly a Russian sleeper agent she quickly becomes suspect number one in a plot to kill the Russian president (Olek Krupa).
It’s a good start for a thriller. You can’t see the specifics but you can get an idea what the shape of it will be, how interesting it could be. That’s usually enough to get someone interested in watching a film, and it’s also usually enough to get a film made, too. Film makers and studios are easily seduced by possibilities as any audience.
According to the mysterious would-be defector, Salt is one of a number of Russian children specially raised and trained for exactly this sort of long-term infiltration, and now they’re being activated. Though she claims to be innocent, Salt quickly escapes from the CIA in classic Hollywood fashion with a makeshift grenade launcher before leaping from roof to roof of several moving cars.
Jolie is undeniably good at this sort of thing, believably switching sobbing desperation to steely determination at a speed that, in a normal person, would make you wonder if they had a personality disorder. The conflicting, secretive nature of the spy world helps with that, as Noyce tries to keep you guessing at Salt’s motives as long as possible. Is she the double-agent she’s been accused of, or is she trying to find leverage to rescue her kidnapped husband (August Diehl) with.
Noyce’s action sequences are over the top in concept, but not execution (avoiding the other big action film trap) as he does his level best to bring you along for the ride. If you are willing to by that one person can sneak past all of the Secret Service in the one place where they’re looking for her, just by dying her hair, Noyce is willing to meet you half way on the explosions and violence.
The problem is that’s usually about as much thought as these things get. Building up twists and turns, drawing people in, isn’t so difficult if you’re at all moderately creative. Invent a hook, and then keep building up the stakes and the tension. But then you have to take all that, bring it in to a believable and satisfactory conclusion, which is usually when the wheels come off the wagon.
“Salt” isn’t quite that, but it does suffer from a spectacularly silly last act that erases a lot of good will. Wimmer has always had a more is more philosophy as a writer, and it shows in “Salt” as the plot twists quickly supersede any ability to believe in them. And considering how serious Salt herself takes her situation, it’s hard to pass off the level of silliness the film reaches in its final moments as just another brainless action movie.
There are moments of well-crafted thrills in “Salt” and Jolie reliably carries them off, but the desire of the filmmakers to put off thinking about the finale until they absolutely had to produces a hollow lack of satisfaction instead of the thunderous catharsis they’re looking for. You could make a case that it is an excellent example of the kind of film it is, but it’s nothing more than that.