There’s a sequence just before the inciting incident of Salt that makes one want to be onboard with its replication of Cold War hysteria, as oddly apolitical as this modern reminder of it is. In it, a Russian defector (although, as common cinema logic predicates, that’s not all that he is, really) begins a whirlwind confession to the CIA of just how far the Soviet Union went in its heyday. Here’s a taste: stealing the baby of the genetic powerhouse hookup between a wrestler and the only female Grandmaster of chess in the Eastern Bloc, training the baby to become a spy, kidnapping the real Lee Harvey Oswald when he traveled to the USSR, and replacing him with said spy. You know, the usual paranoia.

It’s a bunch of gibberish, presented with such grand-scheming gusto by Orlov (Daniel Olbrychski), and in lucid flashback technique, that we know director Phillip Noyce is having a chuckle. He laughs straight through Orlov’s backstory of Russian spies infiltrating the United States after the success of the government’s first mission. Some of them are still here, Orlov says, and they’re planning a major operation, involving the assassination of the current President of the Russian Federation. One of the spies’ names is Evelyn Salt.

This comes as a surprise to Orlov’s interrogator, who’s also named Evelyn Salt (Angelina Jolie). She doesn’t recall ever being a Soviet spy, and her boss Ted Winter (Liev Schreiber) doesn’t think she is either. A counter intelligence agent named Peabody (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who just happens to have been called in for just such an announcement, doesn’t want to rule out the possibility.

From this intriguing setup, Kurt Wimmer’s screenplay can go one of two ways: Either Salt has been wrongfully accused of being spy or she hasn’t. It’s unimportant which he picks, although the movie has a mild kick-start when it harbors the more sinister possibility before doubling back upon itself for the obvious, chalking up a person’s national ties to pre-teen patriotism or true love. Salt’s husband (August Diehl) is a German national, which means nothing unto itself, except to point out he’s not an American citizen, hence a wildcard for Salt’s true leanings.

The screenplay is a concoction of red herrings, shady motivations, illogical actions, and any other sort of deceit Wimmer can use to throw an audience off the scent of a truth that is unimportant. Either way, she is going to run — not because it’s the sensible thing to do but because she is in a thriller. She pleads innocence, then proceeds to walk out of the interrogation room where she’s being held, spray fire extinguisher foam on all the cameras, and fire a makeshift explosive projectile at the guards coming in to secure her. She runs down the street, jumps from roof to roof of trucks on the highway, and escapes.

Immediately, it becomes clear that Salt’s success in escaping, executing her plan, or proving her innocence is going to come pretty easily. Wimmer’s screenplay depends upon the incompetence of Salt’s pursuers, coming to a head in a sequence when Salt crashes the police SUV in which she’s being transported (using, in an amusing gag, a stun gun to control the driver’s foot on the accelerator). Multiple police surround the car, and Salt makes her escape simply by getting out and walking away.

The movie boils down to a generic chase movie for its first act — all running, jumping, shooting in unexciting ways. The script throws in a couple of “one-liners” and “witty” comebacks, like Salt’s whispered response when Peabody tells her to surrender: “No, I didn’t do anything.” There’s also Winter’s response to Peabody’s declaration that Salt is guilty: “Why don’t you tell us what you really think?” And, of course, don’t forget one character’s last words to a victim who calls out, “I’m the National Security Advisor,” to defend against being shot: “Not anymore.”

It stops being surprising — this sort of laziness — after so much of it, so often, and it continues straight through the movie. Characters’ actions stop making sense, like how Peabody’s suspicions of Salt shift instantaneously (in spite of the facts he has at the time, except one, contradicting that).

Mainly, it’s Salt’s indecisively sly nature, which is hesitant to be either a Kafkaesque wrong woman story or to challenge the notion of its heroine’s loyalties, and weak narrative that undo the movie’s promising grounding.

Mark Dujsik is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Online Film Critics Society. For more of his reviews, visit his website.

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