Amazing what a chance comment can do, isn't it? According to the "legend" behind perfectly-adequate spy thriller Salt, Angelina Jolie once made a flippant comment about her desire to play Bond to a senior exec at Sony Pictures. And then Kurt Wimmer's script about a reactivated sleeper spy dropped onto the desk. At that point, the lead character was called Edwin Salt. A little persuasion and a few gentle hints later and Edwin was Evelyn, and Angelina was onboard for some slickly staged cat-and-mouse action.
The change is actually a positive one. With a male lead, Salt – even with Noyce's solid direction – would have been just another pale imitation of the Bourne theme. With a kick-ass female lead, the tale has something different to recommend it and, while it won't hold up to close scrutiny or get a look in at gong time (save for something like Best Fall From A Helicopter at the MTV Awards), this is the sort of late summer crowdpleaser that's hard to dislike.
Evelyn Salt (Jolie, though you probably guessed that) is a CIA operative. Although, as it happens, she might not be. The seeds of doubt are sown when a Russian defector turns up on the office doorstep and Salt's interrogation gradually becomes something rather more sinister. The defector is Vasily Orlov (Olbrychski), a Russian agent rumoured to have created an army of juvenile spies designed to infiltrate American society, passing as respectable members of the community until such time as the motherland needs them. It turns out the rumours were true and he's here to activate one such sleeper who will be required to assassinate the visiting Russian president. The agent's name? Evelyn Salt.
Protesting her innocence, Salt is terrifed that the longer she stays answering questions, the more her husband will be at risk so she flees. For CIA man Peabody (Ejiofor), this is proof that she's guilty and, together with Salt's closest colleague Ted (Schreiber) begins chasing down this potential rogue agent. Is she running because she's being chased? Or is she being chased because she's a highly trained superspy?
After a few years of serious roles, it's good to see Jolie whooping ass again. She's a highly convincing action lead and she throws herself into this admittedly silly tale with gusto. Ejiofor is great as the straight arrow in pursuit, Schreiber is a decent ensemble player and, all told, this is a thoroughly watchable bit of fluff. Violence is efficient but moderate as befits the 12A certificate, and Noyce is a great action director, keeping everything moving along, glossing quickly over the gaping holes in the plot and keeping the fights and chases completely coherent. It's a small thing but it's amazing how often directors mistake "action" with "frenetic". Noyce knows the difference, keeps it clear and ratchets up the tension.
It's a shame that the script and plot don't match the quality of the leads and the director but, regardless, Salt is a damned enjoyable summer thriller. If you want the grey cells stimulated, look elsewhere. If you want a popcorn-friendly diversion for a couple of hours, you could so much worse at the moment.
EXTRAS ★★★★ There are three versions of the film – theatrical (100 mins), Director's Cut (104 mins) and the Extended Cut (101 mins). There's an audio commentary from Noyce; plus, the theatrical version has a picture-in-picture "spy cam" commentary/behind-th-scenes from the cast and crew. Then there are xx featurettes: The Ultimate Female Action Hero (8:05); The real Agents (12:33); Spy Disguise: The Looks of Evelyn Salt (5:26); The Modern Master of The Political Thriller: Phillip Noyce (9:15); False identity: Creating a New Reality (7:14); Salt: Declassified (29:47); and The Treatment, a radio interview with Noyce (27:12).