Its so nice to know that even though the Cold War is over, its still possible to make a thriller rife with old-fashioned Cold War paranoia like SALT. Its a slight but solid bit of filmmaking that fuels the fires of conspiracy theorists while keeping the audience second-guessing about the motives of its eponymous protagonist. Plus, there is something downright quaint about the way it weaves Lee Harvey Oswald into the plot without straining itself.
The premise involves sleeper agents trained by the Soviet Union since childhood to pass as Americans, and then planted in the United States in order to bring about the fall of capitalism with a well-coordinated strike. The Soviet Union may be gone, but the true believers in Russias glory and eventual world domination are not, and so when a Russian intelligence agent stumbles into Rink Petroleum, a CIA cover company, and spins a tale of assassination, the Agency takes notice. When the Russian identifies his interrogator, Evelyn Salt (Angelina Jolie), as the sleeper agent who will shortly be murdering the Russian president while he is visiting New York, the Agency takes even more notice, and Salt, not waiting to be cleared by her good pal Ted (Live Schreiber) or tossed into custody by the more skeptical Peabody (Chiwitel Ejiofor), takes it on the lam. Ostensibly to insure the safety of her beloved husband, the spider expert who won her heart and freedom from the North Koreans, but perhaps to make her way to New York and carry out the assassination plan. Motives are blissfully ambiguous, with Salts guts and cunning, over and above Jolies good looks, making the chase never less than compelling.
And thus does the film unfold, with Salt making one amazing and barely credible escape after another while staying less than half a step ahead of Ted and Peabody, the former not willing to believe shes a double-agent, the latter unable to believe anything else. Under Philip Noyces precise, unruffled direction the emphasis is on Salts cleverness, not the action itself, making her creation of a bazooka out of an office chair and cleaning supplies as, if not more, interesting than the explosive result. The same can be said of the way she outfoxes an armed police escort involving a convoys of vans by using raw nerve, the element of surprise, and a TASER in ways that the manufacturer could not have imagined. The script, unwilling to test the audiences patience, reveals some of Salts secrets surface at the one-hour mark, though small details have cleverly plant more seeds of doubt about the true meaning of what has just transpired. The ending has some nifty surprises, and has the good grace to fill in a gaping plot hole.
Jolie, on whom the delicate suspension of disbelief lies, is ferocious. There is a grim determination, a preternatural assurance, and a natural physicality that makes Salts seemingly impossible plans plausible, intricately plotted or made up on the fly, and that carries the audience along for the ride.
SALT has no sense of humor, no playful irony, and no apologies for it. A straightforward thriller told in the slightly muted tones more suited to a police procedural, its still a pleasant diversion, and a nice bit of nostalgia.