Director: Philip Noyce
Starring: Angelina Jolie, Liev Schreiber
Runtime: 100 mins
Amongst the many effects of George W. Bush’s presidency, a probably unimportant consequence has been overlooked: for much of the past decade, thrillers have been unable to include an American President as a character without implying to the audience that he’s either greedy, over-powerful, stupid or evil. The president that briefly appears in Salt is anonymous and boring, and when he’s under threat, it’s only other characters we’re actually concerned with. This fun espionage actioner is too busy profiting from the genre’s potential for excitement to worry about the welfare or the wrongdoings of the leader of the free world.
Angelina Jolie’s Evelyn Salt is a CIA agent accused of being a sleeper spy, trained in Russia to instigate political turmoil and possible nuclear warfare. On the run, fear mounts over an impending political assassination, and it’s unclear whose side Salt is on. When we find out, it’s also unclear why she went on the run and didn’t avoid the mess more easily in the first place, but rather than feeling like an excuse for a chase film, it’s one of many plot elements that play with Cold War-era paranoia about traitors, undercover agents and double-crossings. A Russian under interrogation reports that Salt and many others have been brainwashed and rigorously trained at childhood, so that on a particular date in the future America could be destroyed. The explanation is tongue-in-cheek with a melodramatic voiceover and flashback sequence, and the day of reckoning in question is actually called Day X. The film is never too serious, underplaying the backstory of its lead and the realism of the Russian-American angle – though a suicide bombing feels a bit out of place, and relies on an implausible plot point.
The chase sequences themselves remain firmly on the Mission:Impossible and late Bond side of spy movies, though it’s a shame that thanks to the talkier scenes earnestly and solidly carried by Liev Schreiber and Chiwetel Ejiofor, this isn’t always a good thing, with a few too many jumps across lifts shafts and onto moving lorries. The pace of all this is exhilarating without harming the overall plot structure, beginning and ending in action, and only needing 100 minutes to do it. It’s been much talked about, but it’s really great that the independent agent doing all this leaping and running is a woman for once, and that there’s no need for anyone in the film to point this out in case we hadn’t noticed. Jolie’s last fight (and her final resourceful use of nearby objects) ends with her taking rebellious revenge in front of a big, mostly male crowd whilst half-covered in blood, creating an image that makes the villain’s death satisfying in an unexpected, transgressive way. One wishes that someone had happened earlier, and that film producers are bold enough to back more characters like Salt.