One of the film's better, sillier moments.

Decent spy thrillers are increasingly hard to come by these days, and in a post-Bourne landscape, anything short of intensely gritty action and a politically current logline makes for tough viewing. The latest attempt to replicate the success of Matt Damon’s stunning trio of spy pics is Salt, a peculiar and enticing effort that is too often by-the-book, but the sheer star power of Angelina Jolie and some clever toying with audience expectations makes for a mildly engaging ride.

The first time we see Evelyn Salt (Jolie), she is screaming “I am not a spy!” while being tortured in a North Korean prison. Whether she is a spy or not – and for whom – forms the crux of Salt‘s intrigue, for in fact, Salt is a respected and revered CIA agent, though that is about to change. During an interrogation, a Russian defector explains that people are plotting to assassinate both the Russian and American Presidents, and that the assassin, of course, is Salt herself. After the defector’s neural scans indicate that he is telling the truth, Salt’s superiors – her friend and colleague, Winter (Liev Schreiber), and the more skeptical ONCIX agent, Peabody (Chiwetel Ejiofor) – must decide who to believe. However, once the defector escapes, Salt gives chase, knowing that she can clear her own name quicker than a fleet of pencil-pushing bureaucrats. Her escape is interpretted by Peabody as an admission of guilt, and so Salt must steer clear of the authorities while trying to find the real traitor.

If there is anything to have against this film, it is that there’s not much of a sense of fun. With a plot this silly and convoluted, director Phillip Noyce should have emphasised the absurdity for chuckles, yet for the most part this is a straight-laced effort that treats its ridiculous political intrigue plot with the stoic sensibility of a Holocaust film. A few inspired moments – such as when Salt improvises an explosive device that Macgyver would be proud of – seem to reflect the barminess of the plot, yet by and large this is cold, hard spy fare: undemanding and, at 100 minutes, among the genre’s shortest entries.

Still, for fans of slick genre thrillers, there are some sure pleasures; the action, though not a touch as frequent as it should be, takes a page out of the Paul Greengrass playbook with its sharp direction and economic use of visual effects. Jolie, however, is the irrevocable reason to see Salt, for being the go-to girl for femme-driven action, she shines as one of the few sleek and sexy starlets that can take down hulking brutes without it seemingly clunky or accidentally funny. When she leaps over bridges onto speeding lorries, smacking into the roof with full force, we believe it’s her, because Jolie carries with herself with such confidence and self-assurance when it actually is her, making her at once desirable and easy to root for.

For how focused on gritty realism it is, though, there are numerous fundamental implausibilities that threaten the film’s credibility even within its own wafer-thin sphere. While great measure has been taken to weave a labyrinthine guess-who plot with political congruence, Salt is able to escape the odds with a level of ease that makes Steven Seagal’s evasive manoeuvres look challenging, walking away from a violent vehicular pile-up without a scratch, while the countless witnesses simply stare on like hypnotised Beagles. These brief glimpses of ridiculousness – reaching an apex when Salt disguises herself as a male with a latex mask – mesh awkwardly with the serious-minded intrigue plot, resulting in a strange tone that would be easily straightened out by some lighter moments and a more avid embracing of the film’s resolute silliness.

A mid-film twist, however, is effective in as much as it misdirects the viewer from a far bigger blow to come. In distracting audiences such that they won’t see the second, probably more obvious twist coming, Salt defies what viewers might expect, and so that final gotcha is surprisingly effective despite only lengthening the film’s alienating chasm of tone. Only in its final moments does it seem to realise its own pulpiness, as the daft climax posits a sure sequel down the line.

Anchored by Angelina Jolie’s femme fatale performance and one smart yet not overly manipulative act of misguiding viewers, Salt is certainly among the better sub-Bourne spy thrillers, yet the overly serious tone betrays the film’s better elements given how absurd it all is. Lacking enough thunderous action and a crippling lack of self-awareness means this only gets a passing grade.


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