Let's get this out of the way first: "Salt" is not a good movie.
The film is 100 minutes consisting largely of Angelina Jolie running through a plot that grows more outlandish by the minute. There's little logic, characters act irrationally, and the entire enterprise is just an excuse for Jolie to prove that she can still kick, jump, shoot and run as good as - or better than - any male action star.
To its credit, though, the film is never boring. As "Salt" jumps the rails with each twist, it turns into a spectacular piece of trash cinema. After the full-course meal movie of last week's "Inception," "Salt" is a trip to McDonald's - tasty and fun, but not nutritious in the least.
Then again, I like McDonald's. And as preposterous and shallow as "Salt" is, it's a fun little ride that entertains even as your brain scolds you for neglect.
Jolie is Evelyn Salt, a CIA agent celebrating her two-year wedding anniversary. She's ready to quit the spy life and settle down when a Russian defector comes into her office. During the interrogation, the Russian tells of a secret society of assassins, trained from childhood and planted in the United States to wait for decades until they are given permission to strike. Today, he says, one of those spies will attempt to kill the Russian president on U.S. soil. The name of the spy who will carry it out? Evelyn Salt.Naturally, Salt's employers get a little cautious concerning this information and try to lock her down. Believing she's being set up and fearful for the life of her husband, Salt breaks out of custody and runs, although the film hints that she may have darker matters on her mind. And so begins a movie that tries its hardest to outrun "The Bourne Ultimatum" and out-twist every spy movie ever made.
Jolie inherited the role after Tom Cruise left for this summer's "Knight and Day" and she's probably the better choice. Little information is given to the audience about Salt and for a good portion of the film's run time we're supposed to be in the dark as to whether she is being set up or really a dangerous assassin. Jolie has an edge that sustains that mystery and she's not afraid to get dark when she needs to; a star like Cruise would likely be portrayed as a hero from beginning to end, removing some of the film's fun. As she's proven in "Tomb Raider" and "Wanted," Jolie is game at big action sequences, a plus in a film that spends the majority of its time propelling Salt through car chases, shoot-outs and fist fights.
Along with the physical contortions, Jolie must navigate a plot that features twists and turns that even Jack Bauer would find over the top. While initially a fairly straightforward espionage thriller, "Salt" quickly lets its plot unravel so that heroes become villains, stakes are raised to absurd levels and characters change motivations at the drop of a hat, even when it contradicts everything else they've been doing throughout the film. The twists are there to make the film seem unpredictable and there will be some who think it's a show of intelligence that the film ties itself into so many narrative knots. The problem, however, is that none of the twists make any sense considering everything else that happened before, and destroy any pretense of logic the film might have had; I also believe several laws of physics are blatantly violated. By the time the film heads to the White House for its finale, the twists have become so outlandish that laughter could be heard with each new revelation during the screening I was at.
There's a part of that absurdity, however, that is endearing. After a certain point, you can either check out of the film entirely or decide to go along with the ride. Should you choose to shut off your brain, director Phillip Noyce ("The Quiet American") makes the trip quick and enjoyable. Once "Salt" starts moving, it doesn't let up and there's a great deal of energy in the film's action sequences, particularly a chase that starts on foot and ends with Salt jumping over trucks in a real-life game of "Frogger." The supporting cast, which includes Liev Schreiber and Chiwetel Ejiofor, is solid, especially Schreiber, who clearly has a ball in the film's most ludicrous scenes. And Jolie has such a strong screen presence that we'll follow her even as the film unravels around Evelyn.
"Salt's" pleasures are all surface - even as I was thrilling to the action, I was laughing at the absurdity onscreen. To sustain the narrative and hide the upcoming twists, Noyce gives little information about who Evelyn Salt is, which robs the plot of any emotional grounding and fails to provide a protagonist we can invest in. In setting up a worldwide crisis in the final act, Noyce fails to provide any sense of a greater context; he keeps everything centered on the characters in the room and fails to create the sense that nuclear annihilation is imminent.
"Salt" is definitely a mixed bag, mainly due to an amazingly illogical and preposterous plot. But it moves with energy and speed, and is never dull. In many cases, its absurdity makes it fun. That might not be the highest praise, but in a summer that has regularly disappointed, it's not necessarily a bad thing, either.