Review: ‘Salt’ means to be dumb summer fun for grown-ups, but is really just dumb

By Todd Gilchrist Phillip Noyce’s Salt is the kind of movie that adults point to as good entertainment when they’re more resentful of the choices available for younger audiences than they are discriminating enough to choose something genuinely intelligent for themselves. A thriller obviously designed to capitalize on the success of political-potboiler predecessors like the Bourne series, it wears the pedigree of “mature” filmmaking in much the same way a recent college graduate reinforces his unassailable worldliness with a framed diploma from a private university.

And yet it’s the “grown-up” equivalent of Transformers or some other kind of idiotic escapism, a knuckle-headed action movie that has less creativity or ambition than it does money and star power, and which will ultimately earn a pass from audiences and probably critics as well for no other discernible reason than it’s only mediocre, while most of its competition is just plain godawful.

Angelina Jolie plays Evelyn Salt, a CIA operative who gets hunted by her former colleagues when an interrogation subject announces that she is an undercover Russian spy. Fleeing Washington, D.C. to track down her husband Mike (August Diehl), whom she believes was kidnapped by the same people framing her, Salt soon finds herself unwittingly going through with a plot to kill a visiting Russian dignitary, if only to figure out where her husband is, who set her up, and how she can clear her name, and all before being locked in prison or getting killed by her pursuers.

The biggest problem with Salt is that you just don’t care what happens – at any point, and with one exception, to any character. (And the one, sadly, isn’t Salt herself.) The film’s self-congratulatory attitude towards its gender indifference – a continuation from the announcement that the title character was originally meant to be played a man – subjects Jolie to torture, beatings, gunfights, and showdowns of epic proportions, and yet none of them seem to be born of anything other than empty-headed screenwriting clichés.

We are informed repeatedly that Salt is a trained killer with talents and abilities beyond our comprehension, for example, but it seems like she could have just as easily learned about kicking ass from watching MMA or downloading a steady diet of politically-themed action films. That you never worry for her health or safety is less a reflection of the filmmakers’ liberal attitudes towards female empowerment than the inevitability that the main character, much less movie star, will survive and prevail.

Although the film was written by Kurt Wimmer, whose Equilibrium I count as one of the great underrated sci-fi films of the last decade, and who seems to relish the opportunity to construct set pieces that defy expectations, if not also often the laws of physics, here he seems to have abandoned even the pretense of invention for the convenience of cinematic serendipity, or even luck. Other than a makeshift weapon Salt uses to escape a sealed-off building, almost every scene in the film relies on good fortune and fortuitous timing to propel her to safety, and by extension push the plot forward.

And even if there wasn’t a solid ten continuous minutes during which she opportunistically finds hats, jackets and uniforms to disguise herself wherever she goes, sequences like a freeway chase play so fast and loose with any sense of probability, not to mention the collective intelligence of the characters, that her leap-frogging, gun-busting flight from the authorities feels like a carefully-choreographed relay race where she moves from one vehicle to the next rather than the breakneck, improvised escape that it’s meant to be.

While Jolie does her passionate best to seem as dispassionate as possible as she succumbs to the training of her supposed childhood mentor, the two authority figures on her tail are depressingly one-dimensional, and undergo predictable transformations throughout the story, even when played by actors as talented as Liev Schreiber and Chiwetel Ejiofor. That said, at least their characters have something to do physically; Andre Braugher, who was at one time an enormously promising star in his own right, literally has one line before he disappears from the movie, communicating nothing except that the filmmakers had more money than characters or story to explore.

But it’s Jolie who manages to be the least effective, not just because of her own ubercelebrity but because, and with all due respect to physically-formidable women, she seems like a movie star trying to be tough. As attractive and committed an actress as she is, physically speaking she isn’t imposing, and in fact looks just skinny as opposed to even muscular or athletic. And even if it’s unfair to bring baggage of her superstardom into a critique of her performance, Jolie has transcended being “just” an actress by such a wide margin that it’s virtually impossible to distinguish her from her characters, even when she gives them real emotional weight.

Overall, however, the effectiveness of a movie like this one comes down to its tone – as in whether the filmmakers communicate a tone that befits the story’s seriousness (or lack thereof). And as a purveyor of these big, vacuous thrill rides designed for a crowd supposedly more sophisticated than the plebeian hordes who will supposedly watch anything as long as it has an alien or a giant robot, Noyce has technical proficiency but zero personality, except in that he takes himself way too seriously – which carries over to even the most absurd leaps in the film, be they narrative or purely physical.

It’s disingenuous to extend the benefit of the doubt to a film that it was meant to be ridiculous just because it actually is ridiculous, particularly if the director and lead actress obviously think they’re really creating something substantive – and this movie deludes itself into believing there’s something beneath all of the bluster, action and absurdity. There’s just nothing fun about Salt, not only because it’s meant to be serious, but because its theft of set pieces and storylines is shamelessly obvious, and compensates for that lack of originality with facetious, self-delusional intensity.

Then again, that seems par for the course for those “grown-ups” who wouldn’t be caught dead in one of Michael Bay’s movies but queue up in droves for something like this. But personally, if I’m going to be entertained by something for what it is, I’d rather discover “what it is” for myself rather than be told it’s something it definitely isn’t. Its future box office success or failure notwithstanding, the interest in Noyce’s latest just goes to show that, those plebeians do indeed grow up, but evidently their attention spans are still as short as the days when they thrilled at their own era’s Transformers equivalent. Because ultimately, Salt fails precisely because it makes the case that audiences should turn off their brains in order to see something fun and original – much less smart.

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  • July 20, 2010 | Permalink |

    Somebody’s go a stick up their butt. Lighten up man, and quit being so pretentious. I bet you pleasured yourself to Inception. It was an incredible film but I get the feeling some critics like you are not giving Salt an impartial judgment.

  • July 21, 2010 | Permalink |

    Todd, if you just don’t care what happens at any point in the movie it is your biggest problem. I think that you despise Jolie and form your opinion about her based on preconceptions from the tabloids. This movie is not dumb for sure. The only dumb thing here is your review. Please, watch SALT one more time, turn on your brain and rewrite this review.
    By the way, I’ve always wanted to know why are beautiful women detested by guys like you.

  • July 21, 2010 | Permalink |

    Very well said atimo! I think Todd is a very sad and lonely guy.

  • September 3, 2010 | Permalink |

    Right on point Todd. The movie does not make any logical sense. Right from the time the russian informant was able to leave the CIA building after killing about 3 agents. This is CIA. No one kills an agent at the CIA headquarters and walks away. As for sean and atimo,I think they have some growing up to do

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