In what must surely go down as a quite incredible stroke of good fortune, the recent outing of 11 Russian sleeper agents, masquerading as ordinary folk in the suburbs of America, lends what would otherwise be a quite preposterous, pulpy thriller a strange air of relevance, and perhaps even poignancy. What these supposed revelations did in fact highlight is that the intelligence game is all about patience. It's a long-con waiting game whereby people are maneuvered into position years, even decades, in advance often simply to confirm on the ground basic logistical data that the higher-ups usually already know. That's the real world. In the movies, of course, it's all about ticking clocks, high-profile assassination targets, and gigantic rooms of surveillance readouts headed-up by worried looking men in suits, barking at subordinates about how: "We cannot afford to lose this guy, people!"
Which brings us to Salt, a gender-bender espionage caper that Sony hope will kick-start a franchise capable of gate crashing the boys club currently occupied by the likes of Bond, Bourne, and Ethan Hunt. Helmed by Philip Noyce, veteran of the early Jack Ryan movies, Salt is a high-octane chase movie that sees Angelina Jolie's CIA operator, Evelyn Salt, forced to flee after a walk-in defector fingers her as a Russian sleeper agent with orders to assassinate the visiting Russian President. While it's a good idea well executed, the only thing more implausible than some of Jolie's (suitably committed) stunt work is the idea that the biggest female star in Hollywood would sign up to be a traitor to her country at the center of a summer tentpole. Ultimately, that's the problem that Salt fails to overcome. That the entire movie hinges on a revelation that is never anything less than painfully obvious from the outset.
Technically, Noyce has really done his homework, gleefully mimicking the very best of big-budget spy movie staples with a verve and a vigor that comes off as nothing short of effortless; the globetrotting antics (albeit in flashback) of Bond, the bone-crunching fisticuffs of Bourne, and the elaborate, audacious set-pieces of the Mission Impossible series. Jolie, too, takes to this like a duck to water, capably juggling the ass-kicking while putting the act in act-ion, managing to inject great vulnerability and doubt into the few moments that she is actually permitted to stand still.
While the plot, although suitably silly – aren't they all? – ticks over with a watchmaker's precision, the characterization is much less successful, and while perhaps necessitated by the corkscrew nature of her arc, Evelyn's motivation is hazy to say the least, and the Russians are diabolical and cartoonish in a way that would have been offensive back in the eighties. Suspension of disbelief is mandatory in the world of the big-budget thriller at the best of times, but Salt doesn't require that you suspend it so much as seal it in concrete and dump it in the North Atlantic. As Chiwetel Ejiofor's underwritten agency man remarks to Salt, just as he sets us up for a sequel, or even potential franchise: "Even if I believed you, no one else would." He's not wrong, honestly.
Starring: Angelina Jolie, Liev Schreiber, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Andre Braugher, Daniel Olbrychski
Director: Philip Noyce
Runtime: 100 Minutes