"Salt" is, quite literally, a shaggy dog story.
Despite the cryptic ads that pose the question, "Who Is Salt?" and regardless of the various twists and turns designed to throw us off, the intentions of Angelina Jolie's super-spy character, Evelyn Salt, are never really in question. This is obvious, based on one comparatively small gesture in an early scene.
Salt, a CIA officer accused of being a Russian spy, dashes home to grab the supplies she needs to go on the run and hunt for her husband, who's missing. She grabs a backpack hidden in a trunk full of clothes, but while she's there she also sees her scruffy, little terrier, padding about the apartment, nervous because everything is in upheaval. Once she escapes by climbing out the window and slinking from ledge to ledge, high above the sidewalk — barefoot in a pencil skirt, in the winter, no less — she persuades a young girl in a neighboring apartment to let her in.
There, Salt opens the backpack and produces — you guessed it — the aforementioned scruffy, little terrier. (Good thing they didn't have a Great Dane.) And you realize right then and there that anyone who would go to that much trouble to save a dog cannot be a bad person. It's impossible. So from that point on, while there's tension in "Salt," there really is no suspense. Any attempts to confuse us about our heroine's true nature — and there are many — feel like an elaborate sham.
Under the direction of Phillip Noyce, though, at least it's a well-made sham. "Salt" allows Noyce to return to the kind of action thrillers he's made previously, like the Tom Clancy adaptations "Patriot Games" and "Clear and Present Danger." It's muscular, gritty and propulsive. (Robert Elswit, an Oscar winner for "There Will Be Blood," is the cinematographer.) It's also totally ludicrous and lacking in even the slightest shred of humanity.
It's intriguing that, while a man originally was the main character in Kurt Wimmer's script (and reportedly was to be played by Tom Cruise), making Salt a woman in no way depletes the film of its brawniness. But Jolie expressed interest in playing James Bond a few years back, and voila — Edwin Salt became Evelyn Salt. No actress working today is as convincing an action star as Jolie, and she does tear it up here; the fight scenes are visceral, not balletic like the "Tomb Raider" movies or supernaturally trippy as in "Wanted."
But what Jolie is called upon to do grows increasingly difficult to accept, even for summer escapism. Stunts that would result in serious injury or even death to the average person are nothing for Salt. She jumps off an overpass and onto a moving 18-wheeler, then onto a tanker truck, then onto another semi before landing on the windshield of a cab, stealing a motorcycle and zipping away. She leaps from a moving subway train onto a platform, rolls and just gets up and runs. She gets shot and places a maxi-pad on the wound.
Yes, she's supposed to be a highly trained undercover operative — whether she's working for the United States or Russia — but this is ridiculous and even laughable when, in theory, we're supposed to be engrossed.
Salt's identity first comes into question while she's interrogating a Russian defector (Daniel Olbrychski) who tells of sleeper cells that have infiltrated the U.S., made up of spies who've been indoctrinated since childhood. One of them is on a mission to kill the Russian president during a visit to New York. The person's name: Evelyn Salt.
Naturally, when Salt flees, it makes her look a little guilty. Her associate and good friend Ted Winters (Liev Schreiber, solid in everything) wants to believe she's innocent, but the counterintelligence agent on the case (Chiwetel Ejiofor in a largely one-note role) immediately mistrusts her and sends out the big guns to bring her down.
It would be easier to care about her motives and her fate if she were fleshed out even a little bit more. As it is, Salt is all business. We don't know how she truly feels about her husband, who's crucial to a couple of scenes, and we never know how she feels about the many acts of violence she commits over a short time — some of them questionable, many of them deadly.
It's easy to figure out what Salt is. But who is she? That's a question the film never really seemed interested in answering.