|Salt | Directed by Phillip Noyce | Written by Kurt Wimmer | With Angelina Jolie, Liev Schreiber, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Daniel Olbrychski, August Diehl, Andre Braugher, Hunt Block, and Olek Krupa | Columbia Pictures | 100 minutes|
"Who is Salt?" ask the promos for this movie. Doesn't really matter — all you need to know is that she's the latest Angelina Jolie heroine, one with all the acrobatic, firearm, martial-arts, and escape-artist skills of previous Jolie heroines, from Lara Croft to Mrs. Smith to Wanted
Phillip Noyce, best known for the '90s spy thrillers Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger, outfits Salt with fancy new toys and hardware (including Jolie's wiry, athletic new frame), but his film is really a pre-Bourne, old-school Cold War mole-hunt thriller that pits the CIA against a group of KGB agents bent on a campaign of political assassination and nuclear armageddon. No one seems to have told the Russian spies — or Noyce — that the Cold War is long over. (Then again, the recent capture of a ring of Russian sleeper spies hiding in suburban America may make the film more current than Noyce and screenwriter Kurt Wimmer could have imagined.)
Jolie's Evelyn Salt is a deep-cover CIA agent. One day, a Russian defector named Orlov walks into HQ, tells a fanciful tale of KGB sleepers planted in America as children decades ago, claims that one of them plans to kill the Russian president during his visit to New York, and gives the sleeper assassin's name as Evelyn Salt. Salt herself is the agent debriefing him, and she's so shaken that she makes a break for it. Is she (a) a loyal American out to clear her name; (b) a KGB mole, as Orlov said; or (c) a sleeper embedded so deep that she's forgotten where she came from — only to have the memories and her spy programming awakened by Orlov's visit?
I was really hoping for (c), but, alas, Salt isn't that creative. Rather, we're supposed to guess at Evelyn's loyalties until the movie's climax. She seems to be playing both sides against each other, and she gets chased by Russians and Americans alike, but if you pay attention to which agents she kills and which ones she merely immobilizes, you can tell which side her bread is buttered on.
If there's not much suspense in the plotting, at least there's plenty in wondering how Lara Croft — oops, Evelyn Salt — will get out of one impossibly tight scrape after another. My favorite escape has her going all MacGyver and improvising a grenade launcher from a fire extinguisher, some cleaning fluids, and dismantled office furniture.
Noyce keeps things moving at a pretty rapid clip; clocking in at 100 minutes, the movie is as taut and lean as Jolie's new bod. (She's so curve-free that, at one point, she's able to disguise herself as a man. In case you're interested, as a man, she looks like Ralph Macchio.)
A lot of the usual-suspect character actors are on hand (Liev Schreiber, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Olek Krupa, Andre Braugher), and they give Jolie able support, but this is really her show. At least she's always fascinating to watch, whether she's kicking ass or merely figuring out how to kick ass. (Imagine how much less interesting the film would have been with its original star, Tom Cruise, who always seems to make a point of showing how hard he's working, as if he were being graded for effort.) It's good that Jolie can still command attention, since the ending blows the door wide open for a sequel. Get ready for Salt 2: Die Saltier.