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“See Salt?”

Angelina Jolie is the undisputed US box-office queen of action heroines. With Lara Croft: Tomb Raider‘s $131 million, and the $117 million this had earned to date, she owns two of the top four all-time genre entries (the other two being Crouching Tiger and Charlie’s Angels). While that’s not adjusted for inflation – Aliens would likely come out on top there – it’s still an impressive feat, and there probably isn’t any other actress in Hollywood capable of opening a large-budget action movie on this scale. Even in a supporting role, e.g. Wanted, she has credibility as an action heroine few can match.

Here, she plays Evelyn Salt, a CIA operative who returns from time in captivity in North Korea, and resumes her cover as a company executive. She and her colleague Ted Winter (Schreiber) are called in to interview a Russian defector, and decide if he is telling the truth. He spins a tale of a long-running project, dating back to the Cold War era. Young children were groomed from a very early age to become sleeper agents abroad, leading normal lives without suspicion until the time comes to activate them. That time has now come, with one agent tasked with killing the Russian President, currently on a state visit to the US. Oh, yeah – and that agent’s cover name is… Evelyn Salt.

When Salt can’t contact her husband (Diehl) and the defector escapes from custody too, Salt bolts from the impending custody closing around her and goes on the run. Is it because she wants to rescue her husband and prevent the assassination, to clear her name? Or is she the double-agent claimed? The film doesn’t hold out too long in this regard before committing itself. However, that isn’t the main focus, as the script then swerves in a different direction, and it also turns out that the assassination attempt is not an end in itself, only the start of a more far-reaching, and disturbing, plan to incite Armageddon.

I confess to being somewhat disappointed, especially after I realized this was written by Kurt Wimmer, who gave us Equilibrium and Ultraviolet [the former was a lot more warmly-received, but I’ll defend the latter to my dying breath as pure adrenalin/popcorn nonsense]. This is rather more restrained, which likely explains why it took nine figures at the box office, yet is also rather less memorable as a result. Not to say it’s “bad”, or anything like that; just that it’s very easy to see it, as originally envisaged, starring Tom Cruise. Pretty much run a global search and replace on the script, changing the lead character’s name [to, oh, I dunno: “Jason Bourne”?] and you’d be there. It’s too generic to be a true classic of the action heroine genre.

Still, it’s entertaining and keeps moving. Credit for clocking in at a brisk 100 minutes, rather than stretching things out beyong what’s necessary: there’s isn’t much unnecessary fat on its scriptual bones, and a refreshing lack of romantic chit-chat. There are a couple of solid action set-pieces, most notably an early, frenetic chase through the streets, and Salt overall has an ability to withstand falls that Wile E. Coyote would envy. Towards the end, she descends a lift-shaft leading to the presidential bunker, without bothering to wait for the elevator, and can also turn a few common cleaning supplies into an impromptu rocket-launcher. These are talents I’m sure we all could use occasionally.

Despite this, and Jolie’s undeniable screen presence, it lacks any truly memorable moments, and has little you won’t have seen before, assuming a passing knowledge with action franchises like Bourne, 007, Jack Ryan, etc. [Worth noting that two entries in the last-named series were directed by Noyce] We sniggered more than once at the way Salt always seems to have a new outfit, even as she runs from the entire weight of federal law-enforcement, and Salt’s husband is never developed enough to justify the pivotal role he plays. However, the ending is left wide-open for a sequel, pointing in a definite direction, presumably in the hope of a franchise emerging. The $162 million this has taken overseas, in addition to the US earnings, make that a distinct possibility, and I would certainly not be averse to the prospect of another helping of Salt.

Director: Phillip Noyce
Stars: Angelina Jolie, Liev Schreiber, Chiwetel Ejiofor, August Diehl

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