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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

Salt (review)

Tasty Spy Stuff

I had to snort with something like derision when I heard the premise: “Angelina Jolie is a Russian spy! Or maybe not!” Russian spies? What is this, 1982? Is this a missing James Bond movie? I know Hollywood is creatively bankrupt, but c’mon: dredging up 20-years-gone Cold War paranoia has gotta be a new low for the industry, hasn’t it? (And then that genuine news story about the apparent Russian spies who’d been hiding out in suburbia came along so providentially that you’d be forgiven for suspecting it was planted by Sony Pictures in order to bolster the premise of its would-be summer blockbuster.)
But Salt works. As in breathless-nonstop–action-intensity works. Oh, sure, it’s nutty-as-a-fruitcake insane at the same time, but being this hugely entertaining goes a long way toward making you not want to laugh at it. Well, okay, honestly, I did laugh a few times: more than once at discovering that I’d actually been holding my breath awaiting the outcome of the crazy intense running around and shooting onscreen, and more than once at the plot shenanigans. Because, really, was that supposed to be a surprise? Some stuff you can see coming from… well, I won’t say, so as not to spoil. The movie is spoilerish enough on its own.

Still: I haven’t had this much pure dumb fun at the movies this summer. The “they’re flying a tank” scene in The A-Team came closest, but that was just one scene. Salt is a whole movie of “they’re flying a tank” scenes that are perhaps not on an individual level each as crazy batshit as that, but collectively: whew!

It’s like this. Angelina Jolie (Wanted, Changeling) is Evelyn Salt, who works for an oil company that is actually a front for the CIA: she’s a specialist in intelligence about Russia. And then in walks a defector one afternoon to announce that Evelyn Salt is, in fact, a spy for the Russians, a double agent. Oh yeah, and there’s also a plot about to be put into motion that will destroy America, and it will begin with the assassination of the Russian president — yes, the Russian president — by a Russian operative in New York City.

And that ain’t the half of the crazy. The defector tells a tale that is a conspiracy-theorist’s wet dream about changeling baby spies, Russian kids raised in the 1970s to infiltrate American society — sleeper agents with footie pajamas and bedtime stories! — and now who can tell how many of them are in positions to do America harm. Like maybe CIA agent Evelyn Salt.

Now Salt is on the run, heading to New York from Washington DC, with her colleagues — including her close pal Liev Schreiber (Repo Men, Taking Woodstock) and pain-the-ass-from-a-rival-agency Chiwetel Ejiofor (2012, Redbelt) — on her tail. Is she going to kill the Russian president? Is she going to stop the assassination? We simply have no idea what the believe about her for a very long time, and it’s downright thrilling to be kept on edge like this, especially in a film that is, it must be said, a clear heir to a long line of similar films. Salt is much more like director Phillip Noyce’s Jack Ryan flicks Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger — tons of exciting violence (car crashes and foot chases and explosions and shootouts and more than a little fisticuffery), a bit of MacGyver-esque cleverness, and a dollop of political and personal intrigue — than it is like his thoughtful political dramas Catch a Fire and Rabbit-Proof Fence (It’s on a par with screenwriter Kurt Wimmer’s other recent fare, such as Law Abiding Citizen and Street Kings.)

At barely 90 minutes, Salt feels both longer, for all the wonderful cheese and action that’s crammed in here, and shorter, it flies by so breezily. By the time it’s done, it has opened up its little universe so cleverly that it feels like a superhero — or supervillain — origin story, one begging for sequel so we can come back and play in this world some more.


Watch Salt online using LOVEFiLM‘s streaming service.


MPAA: rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action

viewed at a semipublic screening with an audience of critics and ordinary moviegoers

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine
  • Brian

    Here’s another interesting twist: Apparently Salt was written originally with a male protagonist in mind – specifically Tom Cruise.

    http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=128642346&ps=cprs

    I wonder how much, if at all, the film changed with that substitution?

  • Joan

    I wonder how much, if at all, the film changed with that substitution?

    According to this article at EW:

    http://www.ew.com/ew/article/0,,20363774,00.html

    it changed the relationship between The Spy and The Spouse. Edwin Salt could rescue his wife with no problems, but Evelyn Salt couldn’t save her husband without, well, here’s the money quote (3rd paragraph down):

    “‘In the original script, there was a huge sequence where Edwin Salt saves his wife, who’s in danger,’ says Noyce. ‘And what we found was when Evelyn Salt saved her husband in the new script, it seemed to castrate his character a little. So we had to change the nature of that relationship.’ In the end, Salt’s husband, played by German actor August Diehl (Inglourious Basterds), was made tough enough that he didn’t need saving, thank you very much.”

    I still want to see the movie, but wow, did that piss me off. Can’t have the husband needing his wife’s rescuing abilities, oh no. That’d make him look like a wife. [/ whispers] It’s like all those reviews (not MaryAnn’s) of Julie and Julia complaining that as nice as both husband characters were, they really didn’t have much to do, and why didn’t they have their own plot lines? Seriously? Where are you disgruntled reviewers when 95% of cinematic wives are in exactly the same position? Or is that different, because they’re wives?

    Anyway, yes, Salt still looks fun, but the gender switch did have some effect.

  • allochthon

    “…tough enough that he didn’t need saving, thank you very much.”

    The Paper Bag Princess!

  • RogerBW

    Oh good! I was pretty unimpressed when the trailer came up here – I’m generally not a fan of Jolie – but it looks as though it may be worth tracking this down after all. Hurrah!

  • Erik Goodwyn

    Aw, c’mon people, does *every* movie have to be about gender stereotypes? Sheesh! Anyway, I realize this movie is getting good reviews, but I still find Jolie extremely annoying. I don’t get what everyone sees in her, but I guess that’s just me.

  • LaSargenta

    Yo! Erik! As a matter of fact, just about every movie IS about gender stereotypes…some just jump out more than others.

  • Brian

    Aw, c’mon people, does *every* movie have to be about gender stereotypes? Sheesh!

    No, but when there’s a gender switch in the casting of the lead, the issue comes up pretty naturally. It may or may not make a difference in the final product of the film, but it’s interesting.

  • hmmm… maybe, @Joan, what every movie needs is a gender-swap as part of the screen-writing process, and every character that seems neutered and useless, male OR female, be made more capable/developed/interesting. Naturally, that’s not going to happen, but…

    (In my own writing, I often assign gender near the end of character design, after establishing most other traits, to try to limit my own gender bias. I then shape the character based on their character’s life experience – men and women do wind up slightly different in aggregate due to the way they’re raised and treated – but I try to avoid some of the more glaring men=subjects/women=objects tropes…)

  • Alli

    “‘In the original script, there was a huge sequence where Edwin Salt saves his wife, who’s in danger,’ says Noyce. ‘And what we found was when Evelyn Salt saved her husband in the new script, it seemed to castrate his character a little. So we had to change the nature of that relationship.’ In the end, Salt’s husband, played by German actor August Diehl (Inglourious Basterds), was made tough enough that he didn’t need saving, thank you very much.”

    Wow. Just wow… women can be completely helpless, but if a man needs rescuing by his wife then he has been castrated? If he was being rescued by another man (say in a war film for instance), would he still be castrated?

  • Lisa

    yeah that’s pretty shit. The one that always shocked me was in True Romance when they changed the script becuase they didn’t want to show Alabama shoot a cop. If you remember the way the film ended, everyone in the scene was shooting at the cops but a woman? oh no that would be the end of civilisation.

    I’m so glad, on the other hand, that Angie is back to kicking ass. I hate those give me another fucking oscar earth mother dramas she does.

  • CB

    Wow. Just wow… women can be completely helpless, but if a man needs rescuing by his wife then he has been castrated? If he was being rescued by another man (say in a war film for instance), would he still be castrated?

    Of course not! Every man needs help from time to time, and to get that help from another man is just a symbol of the masculine brotherhood. To get help from a woman? Damn, why not just cut his balls off and put them in a jar while you’re at it, you horrible bitch! Better to let him die; why would he want to live after that?

    But joking aside, if they were worried about the husband seeming too wimpy, then why not just make him tougher but not so tough that he doesn’t need saving? It’s not like it’s a hard situation to set up. Anyone who isn’t Jackie Chan or Jet Li can be made helpless just by putting a gun in their face. Happens to “tough guys” in movies all the damn time.

    Oh right, because my first paragraph wasn’t actually a joke. It was the sad, sad truth. :(

    Can’t have the husband needing his wife’s rescuing abilities, oh no. That’d make him look like a wife.

    And there it is, nice and succinctly.

  • Keith

    My only real problem with the movie is if Salt is so Jason Bourne good, how were the Koreans able to capture her for being a spy before the movie started? I know this plays a key role in the movie later on, but that part seemed rather contrived in hindsight.

  • Azrael

    Honestly, the only complain I have is all the comments (not just on this one but other reviews) is all the comments of “what is this 198*” on anything relating to Russians versus Americans today. Honestly that’s just ignorance of current events, as the current news prove. It makes one want to say “What is this MaryAnn 199*, in pre-Putin Russia when Russia had its economy in pieces, military forces still reformulating and pretty much did everything the US wanted?” We now live after the invasion of Georgia, Russia defends Serbia’s claims to Kosovo (countering America’s/NATO’s defense of their independence), Russia is part of the former Western G7 (now G8), it is a BRIC growing economic power, and it tries to keep under its influence former soviet republics or satelite states, etc. etc. A bipolar struggle is of course impossible but Russia is still (with China and EU) one of the main competitors, more than when Putin became President in 1999, and keeps struggling for a multipolar world against the US’s unipolar preferences. Actually such pop culture makes more sense today than it did between 1985 and 1991, when relations between US and USSR got closer and direct confrontation got less and less likely. Those 1980s related snarky comments not only reek of ignorance but also of bad timing. But this is nitpicking the rest of the review is fine but still, those jokes are just too inaccurate to be witty.

  • MaryAnn

    Those 1980s related snarky comments not only reek of ignorance but also of bad timing.

    Or perhaps they just reek of snarky jokiness.

    Do you think we really don’t get that espionage is constantly occurring, even between strong allies, never mind uneasy former enemies?

  • Azrael

    I know it is obvious espionage happens all the time, it does. But for example during the 1990s Russia didn’t have capacity for such, so if you transplated this kind of fiction (or Spy Next Door for that matter) for the Yeltsin years IT WOULD sound wrong (the image of Russia then was more like a post-communist broken state with relatively moderate and democratic presidents [this part not that accurate to say the least] who could be toppled at any time. Examples: Air Force One and The Saint). But saying that Russian spies versus American spies is too 1980s is just wrong.
    If it was 1990 or something could give you a point. Today it is not just a “countries spy themselves all the time, it’s just how those folks play”, Russia and America actually compeat in espionage. It’s not the same thing than, say, Czech Republic spying on America to check on how they’re gonna do their policy towards them.
    Sorry if i seem to freak out a bit but if you want to make Holywood seem foolish and reality shows they are being quite accurate, the joke was a good effort but as you tried to make it an actuall reality comment and not a Monty Pythonian surreal joke a bit of accuracy helps the joke. Hope I didn’t sound rude in any of the comments, if I did I apologise.

  • MaryAnn

    I don’t mind being accused of making a bad joke. But I do mind being accused of being ignorant. :->

  • Azrael

    Not ignorant cause you yourself admit we all know if happens a lot of time (spying that is, not bad jokes…well those ones too now I think of Grown ups and other Sandler TM movies ;>), what only proves you are not ignorant on the issue. And it wasn’t a bad joke in no way just maybe wrong week, or even decade, for it :>. And it didn’t sound ignorant maybe just a natural Xer reaction to having the feeling of being forced to see a retread of a espionage story that could have appeared in a Canon film in the news and the movies in the same week XD.
    Well aparently Tocqueville in Democracy in America already thought the Russians and the Americans for the simple reason their political systems were different and they tended to expand and shared the Pacific they just had to colide sooner or later. So it doesn’t have to be morning in America or for the Ruskies to be Reds for the feud to go on ;>

  • Just saw Salt and was pleasantly surprised by the nonstop badassery on display. Not suprised at the awful shakey-cam fight scenes (come on already, guys) but the plot was tense and aggressive, and they weren’t afraid to layer in a little ambiguity from the start.

    I liked it!

    4 and 2/3 babylons out of 6 and 1/2 babylons.

  • Michael

    Joan’s original comment is misleading:

    SPOILERS!!!

    I was expecting the husband to save himself. Whoops. ;)

  • Lisa

    ^I thought how is he gonna come back from that?

    I thought it was a nutty film – calling it a female Bourne was very misleading because Angie can’t cross a road without being out of breath. She’s just too frail to take out so many agents – I thought there was a lot of wire work in it too.

    I called the bad guy in the first ten minutes, so it was very predictable, although not very clear on her motives.

  • Paul

    SPOILERS:

    I’m a little surprised at the concern about saving the husband vs. saving the wife, considering the ending of that relationship.

    I’m pretty sure it is not the Russian government, but rogue agents who are carrying out this plot. That’s why they want to kill the Russian president. It’s a part of a coup as well as starting a war.

    As for being captured by the North Koreans, it is a far more militarized state than either Russia or the United States per person, and it has very little wiggle room the way she had ran running around NYC and DC. Besides, even James Bond gets captured from time to time, and in at least one movie needed to be rescued.

  • Jackalope9

    I was irritated by the moment when Jolie, after climbing across the face of the building into her neighbor’s apartment to escape the bad guys, is bonding with the sweet little girl by saying that she always hated math too. Never give a child such an excuse.

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