Lack of Brains, Not Brawn, Hurts Angelina Jolie Thriller 'Salt'

Let's begin by stipulating that nothing wrong with Salt is particularly the fault of Angelina Jolie. All the speculation about whether she could carry an action movie originally written for a male lead (Tom Cruise, specifically) turns out to be mostly beside the point.

It's not that Jolie's all that great as an ass-kicking superspy. It's just that she could be the luscious love child of Sean Connery and Errol Flynn and this movie would still be terrible.

And terrible is what it is. Nothing—not one thing, for real, nothing—in the story makes sense. It's like an espionage thriller written by the guy from Memento, like the writer literally forgot from one scene to the next what had happened five minutes earlier. Or, even worse, like he's hoping you've forgotten. I was going to say that it feels like a Bourne Identity rehash constructed by 10-year-olds, but 10-year-olds would at least have thrown in some time machines or werewolves or something. This is the kind of movie that could be only improved by time machines and werewolves.

Alas, it is identifiably and depressingly the work of fully grown people. There is a deadness about all aspects of the production—the flat performances, the desultory direction, even the chintzy sets (that's supposed to be the inside of the White House? Come on)—that gives off the stultifying stench of mid-career creative bankruptcy. Most of the major figures here have done good work before, including Jolie, co-star Liev Schreiber, and director Phillip Noyce. (The telling exception is screenwriter Kurt Wimmer, whose biggest claim to respectability is the 1999 remake of The Thomas Crown Affair.) This time out, they're barely trying. It is common to say this kind of movie has contempt for its audience, but what it really has is contempt for itself.

After a prologue that serves no purpose except to let us revel in a half-naked Jolie being beaten by North Korean captors (the movie seems to be congratulating itself for daring to treat its heroine as badly as any male action hero), the story lurches to life in Washington, D.C. We learn that Evelyn Salt (Jolie) is a covert spook in the CIA's Russia division. I know, you're thinking, Russia? One of the many, many dubious things about the film is its Cold War revivalism. But anyway, yes, the bad guys here are Russians. One of whom wanders into the agency one afternoon, seeking to defect (does that still even happen?) and claims that Salt is some kind of sleeper assassin trained as a child at a top-secret Soviet lab and sent to the U.S. to do ... something or other.

Honestly, it gets pointless to try to follow the plot, because the film escalates through a series of betrayals and gotcha moments that register as random and increasingly desperate bids to generate suspense or momentum or any kind of energy at all. There's an interminable chase around D.C., much of it on foot, and I have to say that watching Angelina Jolie run and occasionally jump onto things is not really as compelling as the movie hopes. There's also a subplot involving her husband, a creepy German arachnologist, about which I will say only that if a movie shows you big hairy spiders in Act I, I expect to see some big-hairy-spider action later on. Big letdown.

Of course, the Bourne franchise demonstrated that a silly story doesn't matter if you have enough breathless editing and improbable acrobatics. But Salt fails on that front, too. The fisticuffs and run-and-gun scenes are dimly lit and poorly spliced, with little of the visceral whoomp that we've come to expect from big-money Hollywood action. The Bourne movies raised the bar; Salt can't touch it on tippy-toes.

Still, with a $36.5 million opening weekend and an ending that brazenly bids for a sequel, we probably haven't seen the last of Salt. So I hope they take my suggestion for a black, wise-cracking sidekick. Named Pepper, of course. Wanda Sykes might be available. And I know some 10-year-olds who might have some other good ideas. What if the time machines actually turned you into a werewolf?