“Bourne with boobs” is how Salt has been dubbed in some quarters, a rather unfair assessment of Angelina Jolie’s latest action outing. There is no doubt that the film has been mounted to tap in to the same audience as Matt Damon’s blockbusting amnesiac spy, and the door is left more than a little open for further adventures. But rather than the simple rip-off suggested by the uninspiring trailer, Salt is in fact a rather enjoyable twisty-turny thriller that manages to defy expectations on more than one occasion.
Originally conceived as a Tom Cruise vehicle until he saw fit to jump ship, the production was forced to undergo a rewrite or two to accommodate the former Tomb Raider signing on (so Edwin became Evelyn – not Edwina, more’s the pity). This probably did the film a big favour – with Cruise as the lead it would have felt a little too much like Mission: Impossible 4. As it is, Jolie brings an appealing slither of tenderness to the role of the titular CIA agent, forced to go on the run when she is implicated as a Russian sleeper agent scheduled to be activated for the forthcoming funeral of the US Vice-President. It turns out the Soviet Union spent much of the Cold War investing in a brainwashing programme that trained young children to become invincible agents who were then sent to live quietly in America, waiting for the day they were needed to bump off a President or two. Now someone has reactivated the programme and its agents for nefarious reasons. Is Salt really one of those children?
Initially trying to bring her in unharmed is friend and mentor Liev Schreiber, one of those invaluable breed of actors who can cross the line between good and bad guy so easily you’re never sure which side he’s on. The always reliable Chiwetel Ejiofor is the agent determined to bring Salt in no matter what. Also caught up in events is Evelyn’s husband Mike (August Diehl), who played a crucial role in securing her release from a North Vietnamese prison camp some years before.
So far, so Bourne, as Jolie escapes CIA headquarters with the help of a fire extinguisher and a pair of knickers. But then comes the first sharp left turn of Kurt Wimmer’s script which leaves Salt as the indisputable villain of an assassination, the first of several strong action set-pieces that recall the more outlandish scrapes Jason Bourne managed to extricate himself from. Even better, everything featured in the film’s trailer has now been and gone, which leaves the audience with the unfamiliar but pleasing sensation of genuinely not knowing which way the story will go next. Without wanting to give too much away, Salt’s motives are never exactly clear until the suspenseful, if credulity-straining, climax.
Jolie is fast and furious as the super-agile Salt, though her ability to knock unconscious quite so many agents with her bare hands means the film feels a little more fantastical that the more grounded The Bourne Identity. Directed by Phillip Noyce - an old hand at spy shenanigans, having two Jack Ryan blockbusters under his belt - the action is tightly shot and briskly paced; clocking in at 100 minutes, it’s one of the shorter films of the summer season. The film bounces breathlessly from one round of killings to the next, leaving audiences little time to figure out exactly what’s happening and what Salt has planned next; but then guessing what’s really going on is half the fun.
Another climax after the big climax feels a bit tacked on and unnecessary, as though the film doesn’t know when to quit. But Salt is still a fun thriller in a summer that has disappointed more often than not. It may ultimately be a load of old baloney, but at least it’s exciting and fairly unpredictable baloney.