Salt, released in 2010, is an espionage thriller directed by Phillip Noyce, who previously directed the “Jack Ryan” films Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger. Salt is based on an original screenplay, however, so Noyce and writer Kurt Wimmer were free to do whatever they wanted with the characters. Angelina Jolie leads a cast of hard-to-spell actors as Evelyn Salt, a C.I.A. agent who finds herself on the run, suspected of being a traitor to her country.
“Wronged spy” is one of the most common basic plots in espionage thrillers. There are so many examples it’s practically a genre unto itself at this point. So the label and the casting of Jolie essentially does all the work of telling the audience whether this is a movie they’d be interested in seeing. But it would be a mistake to think that Salt is just another formulaic clone.
Hint to people doing crowd control: Stop anybody who is doing a dramatic walk away from the scene of an accident.
Unlike a lot of “wronged spy” movies, Salt isn’t framed while on a mission, betrayed by a fellow agent she then has to chase after. Instead, she’s just about to check out of the office for the day to go see her husband (August Diehl) for their anniversary, when a Russian agent comes to C.I.A. headquarters, supposedly to defect. It’s the Russian (Daniel Olbrynchski) who fingers her as a mole, and soon Salt is on the run from her own agency. Her handler Ted (Liev Schreiber) protests her innocence, but counter-intelligence agent Peabody (Chiwetel Ejiofor) views his job as bringing her in, regardless of her guilt. And while Salt is running, hoping to find her disappeared husband, the C.I.A. believes she’s out to destabilize U.S.-Russian politics, allowing for a return of the Soviet Union.
The Cold War hasn’t been in vogue for spy movies since, well, it ended, but by using the threat of a renewal, Salt automatically brings in a lot of the feelings of older spy movies, with the ever present sense of danger and the inability to know who to trust. And the plot itself builds upon this in new ways; while it uses some of the familiar “wronged spy” tropes, it doesn’t use them all the same way. Sometimes it plays them straight; other times it avoids them entirely. Sometimes it sets up a particular expectation only to subvert it, and sometimes it then subverts that. If you’re a fan of espionage films, you will be able to guess some of the twists, but you will probably not guess all of them — and quite likely will talk yourself out of guessing some. There are more complex films out there, to be sure, but Salt is a twistier tale than the standard spy story.
Hint to police arresting an elite secret agent: If your captive is not acting captured, consider the possibility that they aren’t.
Angelina Jolie is a good fit for action movies. She’s athletic enough to make it look convincing, and she can convey a lot of moods with small expressions — important as Evelyn Salt doesn’t often have the liberty of expressing what she’s feeling outright. And while Salt gets up unscathed from a lot of things that rightfully ought to do some real harm, she still winds up taking enough damage to look like she’s gone through the wringer by the end of it all. Evelyn Salt is a fun character to watch, and if they go forward with plans for a sequel (I just checked, and there’s one penciled in for 2014), this could wind up being a definitive character for Jolie.
The other actors also all turn in solid performances. August Diehl doesn’t get much screen time, but is believable as the compassionate husband in the little we do see from him. Olbrynchski plays Russian spy Orlov with just enough shadiness to make you know there’s something off about his whole demeanor, without ever quite tipping his hand on what it is. And Liev Schreiber and Chiwetel Ejiofor work well together with one protesting Ev’s innocence and the other thinking she’s guilty, especially with Schreiber’s demeanor changing as the situation looks increasingly damning.
Salt is an entertaining, twisty spy game, with entertaining characters and solid performances from its actors. If you like spy movies at all, this is one you should definitely check out.