I’d like to think that I have a high tolerance for bad movies, largely because there are a variety of levels of “bad”.

There are movies that know they’re bad, that relish the fact that they’re poorly produced, and just embrace that fact as much as possible (Snakes on a Plane).  There are movies that are so bad that they’re cheesy, yet still have some endearing qualities (Demolition Man).  There are movies so bad that they offend your general sensibilities and you can’t watch them (I walked out after 30 minutes of Cop Out).

And then there are the train wrecks.  The ones that start bad.  And then get worse.  These are the movies where you can’t bear to look away. You find yourself transfixed.  You stare at the screen, wondering when a movie will hit rock bottom, thinking it’s gotten there… and then it just keeps going.  These are the movies where you wonder how, in their right minds, a director, studio executive, or someone in the film’s creative process didn’t say “Y’know… this is crap.”.

Salt is one of those movies.

At roughly 35 minutes into Salt, I had to bite the piece of skin between my thumb and forefinger.  I was laughing so hard that I was afraid I might disturb the other patrons, and was trying to get myself to stop.  Because there is no intentional comedy in Salt.  Nothing is played for laughs.  Salt tries to be this serious movie.  And instead, what you get is one of the worst films this year.

I’m going to tell you more about Salt after the jump, and there are a few specific mentions of the movie included.  I wouldn’t call them “Spoilers”, because I’m not really trying to ruin anything. I just want to do my civic duty.

For the folks that have no idea what Salt is about, here’s one of the earlier trailers.  I’m pretty sure this is the trailer that first introduced me to the movie.

Now, right off the bat, the trailer presents some pretty cool concepts for you to consider, and if you let your imagination linger after watching that trailer, you can probably think of some really interesting ways to spin a tale like that.  What if a woman working for the CIA was a sleeper agent, with no idea that she had been trained to work for the enemy?  What if someone in the highest tiers of national security was accused by a foreign national of being a traitor to her own government?  And what if she had to go on the run and prove her innocence?   Or even better, is she really a spy?  Has she been lying for decades and this is all part of some master plan?

They’re compelling questions, and the possibilities presented had me thinking.  I like it when a trailer can do that to me.  I like it when a trailer can get me curious.  So I was pretty intrigued by Salt.  Not fanatical by any means, but very curious to see what it wanted to do.  And I left it on the radar of my Summer Movie calendar.

Maybe that was part of my problem.  In my imagination, I had come up with 12 different ways of answering the questions that the trailer presents.  There are so many interesting ways you could take this using the basic idea of “Are you a sleeper agent?”.  You’re probably thinking of at least one or two of them right now as you sit there. But whatever cool ideas your brain comes up with, they’re almost certainly cooler than what plays out on screen.

When I sat down with Salt, I had no expectations that it would be exceptional.  Truth be told, as we entered the theater this morning, I half-joked with Brian (my film-going buddy and one of the few people who can tolerate the mere thought of waking up at 8am on a Saturday, so we can meet, grab breakfast and see the first matinée of the morning) that I was somewhat prepared for the movie to be a disappointment.  The rating for it on Rotten Tomatoes was mixed as of Friday night, and critics were divided on whether or not Salt delivered the goods.  So when the lights dimmed, the final trailer finished airing, and the movie started, I told my brain to quiet down and enjoy the pretty lights and big booming explosions.

It was a good start.  But 35 minutes into the film, I had to stop taking it seriously.  Now forgive me while I spoil a scene of the movie for you.

After being apprehended by Johnny Law, Evelyn Salt is sitting in the back of a police car.  She’s in cuffs, flanked by a police officer on each side, and a driver in the front seat.  She makes a masterful escape, knocking one cop’s head through a window and taking out the other in short order.  She then grabs a tazer off one of the cops in the back seat (now unconscious) and fires it at the driver.

Sounds bad-ass, right?  Big fight scene, Angelina was doing her own stunts… how can you NOT like that?

Well, here’s where it gets bad.  As she clings to the limp body of the unconscious officer that had been driving the car, she uses the tazer over and over again to get him to spasm and hit the gas pedal.

Yes, folks. She drives the car a half-mile using a tazer and an unconscious police officer’s spasms.

She rams through SUV’s.

She bursts through road blocks.

She even DRIVES THE CAR OVER A CONCRETE BARRIER… using this tazer and the spasms of an unconscious body.

And when it’s all done, she walks away from the car, virtually unscathed.  She picks up a Russian-style hat off a nearby vendor rack… and walks off into the city.

And I laughed.  I laughed a lot.  I laughed so much that I had to force myself to stop.   The movie wasn’t trying to be funny or ridiculous.  This wasn’t cheese.  This was presented as an intense and high energy action sequence, saying to the viewer “Look! She’s creatively escaping from an otherwise inescapable situation.  And maybe she’s really Russian!  See the hat?  IT’S TOTALLY RUSSIAN!”.  It was absurd.

That was the point in the movie where it went from “Hrmmm…” to “Bad”.  Sadly, it doesn’t end there. It spends the next 90 minutes going from “Bad” to “My god, are you kidding me?”.  There are a few more plot twists presented, but none of them deliver on a creative level.  They’re just progressively more absurd as the movie chugs onward.  And each time I thought Salt hit an all-time low, it managed to dazzle me by going a step further.  This whole thing is just a train wreck, folks.

I honestly have no idea how it happened.  Salt had all the ingredients for success (forgive me, I promise this is the only pun in the article).  Although I’m not a huge fan of her past work, Angeline Jolie is still a pretty good actress.  Liev Schreiber has one hell of a portfolio.  If you listened to the Firefly/Serenity episode of Remember When, you know that I have a huge man-crush on Chiwetel Ejiofor, an actor that is spectacularly talented yet largely unappreciated by Hollywood.  The writer of “Salt” did the 1999 remake of The Thomas Crown Affair.  And the director, Phillip Noyce, has previously directed such big titles as Patriot Games and The Saint.  It’s a masterful line up of talented professionals in the entertainment industry.

But ultimately, nothing saves this movie.  Every actor in that roster delivers one of their worst performances in their career.  The script feels like a relic from the Cold War that’s out of place, rather than a fresh look at how Russia could easily strike at the United States in the middle of a peaceful co-existence.  Evelyn Salt’s motives are unclear at first, laughable at best, and in the end you’re stuck having watched a movie that really didn’t do much.  They even try to get you to make a connection with her, using a poor strand of emotion.  There’s almost nothing redeeming about this movie.  The action sequences didn’t even do a whole lot for me.  There’s better stuff in The A-Team, Inception, and any number of other summer flicks.   Allegedly, the studio also cut a random sex scene from the final edit, so if you were hoping for a chance to see a super-scrawny Angelina Jolie show off some flesh, you’d better go rent Gia instead.

I walked out of Salt shaking my head.  It’s a whole different kind of bad, one that you rarely see in Hollywood.  You simply can’t believe the levels it gets to, and how much it disregards your intelligence as a viewer.

It’s a shame.  This could have been so great.  It could have been like The Bourne Identity with a twist, using a female as the main character.  Instead, this is just painful.

Do yourself a favor:  Go see Inception a second time.  Or check out Despicable Me, which has gotten great reviews from people that I trust.  But above all else, skip Salt.  In my opinion, this isn’t even worth a rental.