When the first scene of Salt featured Angelina Jolie in her underwear, being tortured by North Koreans, I felt my heart sink. I lectured myself sternly, though. After all, we've seen a few movies with terrible introductions turn out to be quite good. Have to give it a chance.
So I gave it a chance. But it's not very good. The plot is extraordinarily silly and convoluted--it reminded Mark of that episode of South Park about the plot to assassinate Hillary Clinton. For me, it seemed more Tom Clancy-esque. Like, if Tom Clancy had a really bad day. And got paid by the word.
It is, as the trailers would have you expect, all about layers of international intrigue and double-crossing and double-double-crossing, etc. And it all flows fairly logically (i.e. you can follow it without much effort), but with every new plot twist you're left thinking not "Ooh! I didn't see that coming!" but "Oh, really? Come on! Don't do that!"
Though I have nothing of any interest to say about Salt as a story, the gender politics is worth discussing. The film was originally "Edwin A. Salt," a vehicle intended to star Tom Cruise (as per Variety). Watching it, this makes sense. Other than the original tortured-in-her-underwear scene, there is very little about Evelyn Salt that differentiates her from the men in the movie--on both sides. Except that she kicks all their asses. None of her ass-kicking is done in a "girly" way, none of it requires a leather bra or high heels, or even the quips we often get from female action heroes. She's just doing her job. I'm actually reminded a little bit of Sigourney Weaver's Ripley from the first Alien film--another role intended for a man. I love that Evelyn Salt was allowed to be concerned about her husband, a scientist. It had nothing to do with her being female and him male--he was a civilian and she wasn't. That makes sense to me, and I love to see that kind of unconscious (or seemingly unconscious) gender equity in a movie. It fails the Bechdel test all to hell, though--there aren't even any other major female characters. Evelyn definitely plays in the boy's sandbox. (Note that the relationship between Salt and her husband, which I found to be one of the more feminist aspects of the film, was apparently not intended that way--there is a piece on Scott Mendelson's Blog worth checking out about that.)
Many reviewers are calling Salt a feminist version of the Bourne trilogy. Honestly, I think that is giving a bit more credit than is deserved. Whatever else is wrong with them, the Bourne movies are pretty darn good action films. Salt isn't, it's dumb. And Jason Bourne's heroism makes sense in context--he may not remember what he's been trained to do, but it is ingrained. He's supposed to be the best. Salt offers no explanation, no matter how far-fetched, for why Angelina Jolie is able to not only run and shoot and drive real fast, but also jump from the tops of trucks or out of windows without getting hurt, climb walls like Spiderman, and perform Matrix-style kicks. No matter how unrealistic the general premise of a film may be, internally consistent logic goes a long way to make it believable. Salt doesn't have that.
On race, the film is racist in the same way all of these type of international intrigue movies are--the bad guys have a nationality and their national identify is part of what makes them bad guys. I was glad that, with the exception of Angelina Jolie, the actors who played Russians in the film were mostly Eastern European. Peabody, who is likely the film's most stable and professional character, is played by Black British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor. Though the fictional president in the film is a white dude, the fictional presidential cabinet was at least somewhat diverse, with an African-American Secretary of Defense and a female CIA Director.
Overall, this was simply a film I had a hard time getting excited about. The ridiculous plot made it hard to stay interested, and the over-the-top action heroism of Jolie's character ended up victim to it. I like Angelina Jolie as an action hero--I've crowed about her here before. This film doesn't allow her to work up to her potential, even if it is one of the best action roles for women we've seen in a while (certainly the best starring one this year). It doesn't impress me much that some of the best action roles for women in 2010 are the same ones from 1979--the ones intended for men.