Despite its blunt title, summer blockbuster Salt is actually low in sodium and light on flavour. It won't add anything to your meal and it won't clog your arteries, either. This Salt simply wants to entertain, but it can barely do even that, which is awfully lame for a straight-laced action flick starring the charismatically charged Angelina Jolie. There are moments worth watching, such as a series of stunts involving Jolie's character leaping from one truck top to another and a brief bit inside an elevator shaft (action movies always make good use of elevator shafts), but these moments are merely a few good grains in a big pile of drowsy drivel.
Everything else outside the scattered moments of minimized fun is trapped somewhere between silly and serious, where director Philip Noyce wrestles with the challenges of nailing a consistent tone. Since the plot involves an American CIA agent named Evelyn Salt (Jolie) being suddenly outed as a Russian spy and then going on the run to either clear her name or kill the Russian president (depending on her current allegiance), it would seem that there isn't much room for anything but a serious attitude.
Toss in some conspiracy theory silliness regarding Russian sleeper agents and Lee Harvey Oswald and you have a plot that desperately wants to mean something, but never knows how to convincingly corral the various ideas into a unified forum. With Noyce at the helm, Salt has an old-fashioned feel to it where the whole plot seems to pine for the days of the Cold War, when Russians were the perfect scapegoat for just about everything.
Noyce is no stranger to this genre, having previously directed the early 90s spy flicks Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger, both of which starred Harrison Ford as Tom Clancy's fictional CIA hero Jack Ryan. After all these years, Noyce hasn't altered his simple style very much at all, which shouldn't be a bad thing. With modern action cinema often being defined by flashy camera work and lightning-quick editing, the promise of a back-to-basics action flick courtesy of someone who is comfortable in the genre seems like a welcome addition to the summer.
But Noyce's straightforward and conventional approach proves to be more crusty than charming. His direction is so awkwardly muddled that Salt completely fails as the streamlined action movie it so clearly desires to be. The action sequences themselves are somewhat passable (occasionally fun and occasionally too chaotic for their own good), but it's the way that Noyce handles the progression of the narrative that makes Salt such a clunky little mess.
Despite the plot being designed as a fast-paced chase where Evelyn Salt tries to constantly outsmart and outrun the CIA and FBI agents who are pursuing her, Noyce and screenwriter Kurt Wimmer end up puncturing the momentum at routine intervals throughout the narrative. The plot kicks into gear rather quickly, but then there's the inclusion of a love story between Salt and her spider-loving husband (August Diehl), the majority of which is communicated through a series of laughably hokey flashbacks.
In their few scenes together, Jolie and Diehl manage to create an anti-romance vacuum that sucks up all of the necessary chemistry in the room. There's nothing between the characters, there's nothing about their relationship that provides any dramatic worth, and there's nothing about the husband that warrants any emotional investment in his eventual fate. The inclusion of the husband character feels almost entirely pointless, since his participation in the plot is extremely minimal, and yet the love story ends up being shoehorned into the movie to the detriment of its overall entertainment value.
Love stories in action movies are damn near inevitable, but including a romantic subplot simply for the sake of fulfilling some demographic-crossing genre expectation is misguided and annoying. The flashbacks, which also provide other non-romantic exposition, are employed in such a pitifully backwards way that the narrative ends up feeling quite clumsy as a result. Salt's goal to become a densely plotted, smoothly paced, grim-faced spy flick moves further out of reach with each passing moment.
Noyce's direction is a bit of a mess and Wimmer's script is half-baked at best, but the frustrations with Salt don't end with the two of them. Jolie is decent enough in the title role and she's easily the most consistent performer in the movie, but she never manages to make much of her character. Evelyn Salt lacks depth and dimension, which leaves Jolie's charisma as the only energized element to prevent the character from fading into the background.
Action flick protagonists are often built upon a star's screen presence and little else, so Salt's reliance on Jolie's charisma is no surprise. But putting so much importance on an actor's ability to look good posing with a gun generally works best when the supporting cast has something additional to offer. The inclusion of Liev Schreiber and Chiwetal Ejiofer could be a good thing, since both actors have some decent chops. But this particular pair has little to do until their performances eventually dip into the well of parody.
Listing Salt's faults like this probably makes the movie sound a bit worse than it actually is. The movie isn't quite terrible and some of it is watchable on a late-night rental level, but there's just so much to complain about and so little to commend. Noyce and Wimmer never achieve the gripping, edge-of-your-seat thrills they're aiming for. The confused tone and nearly nonsensical plotting begin to unravel the whole picture from very early on. The movie is designed to lazily employ genre necessities with little purpose or explanation. It may be low in sodium, but this Salt is high in frustrating awkwardness, which I hear can be quite damaging to your movie-watching health.