Not Worth Her Salt

07/22/2010 2:30 PM |

Directed by Phillip Noyce

“Dad” is an Olympic wrestler and all-around Slavic superman. “Mom” is a chess grandmaster with icy-hot self-possession. Their “kids” are an elite unit of Soviet-era orphans with the brains, brawn and covert-ops training needed to infiltrate the CIA. And the only thing nuclear about this family are the warheads they’re planning to detonate.

Now doesn’t that sound like a promisingly stupid premise for a schlocky summer escape? The Cold War clichés in Salt might have made for a great throwback to high-80s Action, a simpler cinematic era when the Weapons were Lethal, the villains Died Hard, and the heroes weren’t afraid to go Over The Top. Salt is certainly dumb enough to make the grade, but it lacks the nonstop absurdities and exploitation indulgences that make for truly enjoyable trash. Everything about this Angelina Jolie vehicle feels so staid and self-serious you’d think she were baiting Oscars with Rwandan genocide or some shit.

I’d mercifully spoil the plot for you but it stops making sense once you get past the set-up. Super spy Evelyn Salt (Jolie) is one of the now adult double-agents deep undercover in the American intelligence community. Or is she? When one of the taskmasters from kiddy boot-camp defects to Washington and fingers Salt as his mole, it’s unclear whether he’s just blown her cover or part of a conspiracy to neutralize the tactical threat she represents. When her husband goes missing and her superiors start in with the suspicious questions, Salt takes off without explanation—either to clear her name or to kick off World War 3.

The hanging question of Salt’s true motives was pretty much the only thing that got me through the first fifty minutes of flat-footed chase scenes and across-the-board comatose performances, each one as colorless as the grey-scaled set designs. But by the film’s midpoint, the plot twists and turns double back on themselves in such logically impossible ways that you know the puzzle will never resolve itself satisfyingly. And then, dear god, there are another fifty minutes. Not until the final scene, unsure whether Salt was setting itself up for a sequel or about to unspool another act, did I experience anything resembling narrative tension.

Director Phillip Noyce’s style is of the kind that critics reliably describe as “craftsmanlike,” which is a nice way of saying that it has zero personality. I love the kinetic kick of a well-constructed action scene as much as any formalist or fan boy, but Salt‘s high-stakes pursuits and shoot-it-out confrontations are so pro forma and perfunctory that they’re really pretty tedious. There is a relentless linearity to Noyce’s set pieces; it’s as if he were improvising each uninspired shot as he went along, unable to set up and pay off anything of enjoyably involved intricacy. A chase that culminates at a highway intersection had all the elements required for a killer showstopper: a complex but clearly defined architecture (looping on-ramps and grade-separated junctions) and multiple vectors moving through space (pursuer, pursued and a whole mess of automobiles). But the opportunity is wasted. The cutting has no unifying tempo, the geography is simplified yet confused. In a later scene that precedes an assassination attempt, the Secret Service agent overseeing security remarks to Salt’s former partner, “If your girl tries anything here, it would have to be pretty amazing.” Surprise! It’s not.

Most of Salt‘s audience will be drawn in by the promise of Angelina’s pouty-lipped smile and Amazonian authority. Though Jolie has proven herself a capable action heroine (from her roles in the Tomb Raider films to Mr. and Mrs. Smith), the physicality of her performance is a lot less convincing here. When she straps on a backpack and runs down the street, arms pumping away, she’s made to look like a middle-aged mom on her early morning power walk. But what’s most surprising is that Salt makes so little use of Jolie’s sex-kitten wiles. The only scene with any erotic charge occurs in a North Korean prison where Salt is chained to a dirty cellar floor in her panties—not really my thing, but maybe you’re into it.

The question of Salt’s true identity at first draws you in, but each successive revelation makes her character seem less, not more complex. And here one of Salt‘s few clever details—a nesting Russian doll that puns visually on the heroine’s layered personas—ultimately ends up backfiring on the film. For every empty shell of an assumed identity that the plot cracks open, the character revealed beneath seems at once basically the same and yet progressively less substantial.

Though the producers no doubt intended Evelyn Salt to become the distaff Jason Bourne, the latter’s effortless awesomeness makes Salt look as bad-ass as Harriet the Spy. The film is worse than bad: it’s bland, approaching blah. Is this really going to become the next big franchise? I couldn’t take another pinch of Salt, never mind a whole trilogy.

Opens July 23