Hollywood studios just loves franchises. That ability to take an inbuilt audience and milk them through numerous sequels, prequels and all the associated merchandise is just too good to give up on. In Salt Sony Pictures knew they had a potential franchise, but when Tom Cruise dropped out (to focus on Knight and Day) they suddenly had a problem. How do you replace one of Hollywood’s biggest stars without it seeming like you’re settling for second best? Why you cast one of Hollywood’s other biggest names, an all out, balls-to-the-wall action star who kicks ass and takes names for fun. That star of course was Angelina Jolie. Of course studios have tried building a franchise another Ms. Jolie before, but with Wanted 2 an unlikely bet and Tomb Raider having gone down in flames, the time was ripe for another spin of the wheel. Of course that meant rewriting most of the script, and that doesn’t always end well. So are we witnessing the birth of a new franchise, or another one-and-done wonder?
The movie opens with Evelyn Salt captured behind enemy lines and being subjected the the very best in North Korean hospitality, insisting that she is not a spy and merely an executive at Rink Petroleum. This scene serves the duel purpose of establishing Salt as a tough character and introducing husband Mike, who has flown to her rescue. 2 years later and back at Rink Petroleum (nudge nudge) a Russian defector walks in off the street and demands an audience with the CIA. Due to her intensive knowledge of Russian, Salt is tasked with interrogating the man, who reveals that a number of sleeper agents have been placed in the US and ready to be activated. One of these agents will kill the Russian president on American soil in an attempt to restart the Cold War. That agent’s name is Evelyn Salt. Now we are of to the races with Salt breaking out of CIA HQ and going on the run. A return to her apartment reveals that Mike has been kidnapped and now Salt has to save herself and her husband. Hot on her heels is her boss Ted Winter (Liev Schreiber) and counter intelligence guy Peabody (Chiwetel Ejiofor), as well as have the US armed services. So can Salt escape, prove that she is innocent and save her husband?
First things first Jolie can do action movies in her sleep. The rough and tumble physical stuff is second nature and she really throws herself around the screen. When the film calls for cool detachment or intenseness she has that nailed too. As a Russian she is convincing as hell. As a concerned wife less so. This aspect of her character is not really explored and there are no real moments of vulnerability, save for the opening reunion with August Diehl’s Mike. Speaking of August Diehl he has probably the smallest role in the movie and does absolutely nothing with it. The pair are never really convincing as a couple and his fate is completely secondary to the main threat to the president storyline. Liev Schreiber on the other hand has a ball with his character and the banter between him and Chiwetel Ejiofor keeps the audience ticking over until the next bout of action. As shown in Wolverine he too can handle himself when the chips are down and looks convincing in the shoot-outs and chases. Ejiofor must be getting tired of playing the agent tasked with tracking somebody down as he has played the role countless times. As always he is good, but his agent really should be getting him a more central role as he is a great talent. Daniel Olbrychski is brilliant as Orlov, matching his wits with Jolie and even managing to convincingly rattle her. He also gets a nice action scene and performs well. Olek Krupa and Hunt Block’s respective Presidents are purely ancillary characters and have no impact on the movie, although neither is ever convincingly fearful of their safety.
In action movies the main purpose of the plot is to move the story from action point a to action point b without confusing or pandering to the audience. This Salt accomplishes rather well. Sure the plot is nonsensical, but it never interferes with the action. It even manages to keep the audience on its toes with twists and revelations sending the plot is completely different directions. The true test to how this movie will stand up is in rewatching, knowing the twists to come and seeing if it detracts from the experience. That is why I waited until I rewatched it to write up the review. And the good news is it doesn’t. The action sequences still hold up and you find yourself looking for clues so that Salt’s motivation and ultimate plan become clearer. Credit must be given to director Phillip Noyce, making a welcome return to action movies after making Catch a Fire and The Quiet American, who manages to make a Bourne-esque spy thriller, without homage or ripping off Liman or Greengrass. The CGI here is thankfully kept to a minimum, with most of the stunts having been actually performed on location. Jolie herself was heavily involved and this makes things a little more believable. There are physics defying moments but these can be ruled as par for the course. Brian Helgeland adapted the script very well around Jolie and it would be difficult to actually see Cruise in this role. The obvious sequel baiting ending was a tad disappointing but ultimately it’s a fun ride.
Salt is a well made, well executed action movie, driven by a gutsy performance from Jolie that does everything you expect from an action movie. Unfortunately it is somewhat formulaic and perhaps a shade underwhelming. Enjoyable escapism and plenty of potential make this franchise one to watch.