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She never quite says: “The name is Salt. Evelyn Salt.” But Angelina Jolie, for all intents and purposes, is James Bond in her new film “Salt,” and it’s really no surprise that Jolie, the only female action star in Hollywood, more than measures up to Daniel Craig.
Donning several guises while on the run in Columbia’s spy thriller, she even — with the help of considerable facial latex, mind you — turns up as a guy in one scene. She makes a pretty ugly one, but it makes an amusing gag, a kind of acknowledgment that kick-ass action heroes now come in both genders. In Jolie’s case, it’s more convincing than ever because in those Lara Croft movies, she looked like an animated creature that popped out of a video game.
While preposterous at every turn, “Salt” is a better Bond movie than most recent Bond movies, as its makers keep the stunts real and severely limit CGI gimmickry. This is a slick, light summer entertainment that should throw considerable coin into Sony’s coffers while re-establishing (if it needs re-establishing) Jolie’s bona fides as an action star. The film certainly didn’t need the assist, but recent news events have erased any objection from critics, tied to laws of plausibility, over the film’s key concept that Russian sleeper spies still exist in the U.S. long after the fall of the Soviet Union.
Another talking point here is the similarity between this film, reportedly first developed for Tom Cruise, and the action-spy thriller he chose to do, the lamentable “Knight and Day.” There are astonishing similarities: An American spy believed to be a rogue agent gets chased by the CIA, with the protagonist escaping by, among other tricks, leaping from one fast-moving vehicle to another on a major thoroughfare. These similarities only point up how smart “Salt” is in crafting its escapist fare.
Director Phillip Noyce and stunt guru Simon Crane, working from a clever though shallow screenplay by Kurt Wimmer, make sure the stunts in “Salt” look like a dangerous and demanding day at the office. In “Knight and Day,” the movie’s absurd physicality is played as effortless clowning replete with repartee that is supposed to remind you of 007 but in fact is embarrassingly flat and banal.
There’s no joking around here. Jolie’s Evelyn Salt is made of sterner stuff, the kind that can survive a North Korean prison without giving up the name of her employer, the CIA. Back in D.C. and married to a nice though naive German arachnologist (August Diehl) — yes, he studies spiders and, yes, there is a payoff to that — she is assigned to CIA desk duties when a supposed Russian defector (Daniel Olbrychski) walks in one day.
Nobody is particularly buying his act, especially Salt’s superior, Ted Winter (Liev Schreiber), but she accedes to his plea to interrogate the man briefly before she heads home to an anniversary dinner. The Russian talks nonsense about sleeper cells and a plot to assassinate the Russian president on American soil. Then he happens to drop the name of the Russian sleeper spy: Evelyn Salt.
This apparently is enough to turn the Agency’s counterintelligence officer, Peabody (Chiwetel Ejiofor), into her instant foe. Nothing that happens after this deserves any serious scrutiny, but it’s fun to watch Jolie’s Salt seemingly transforms into the Russian sleeper agent she is reputed to be — escaping from a virtual lockdown, dodging cars and bullets, making her way to New York and through subway tunnels to confront the Russian president, then take on, seemingly, every Russian and CIA op in her way.
All those “seemingly” qualifiers are meant to indicate that no studio is going to cast Jolie as a villain or even an anti-hero. What do you think this is, the ’70s? But there’s just enough doubt for the ad copy to read: Who is Salt?
You can’t say the movie keeps you guessing about this for long since most attentive viewers will figure out the true villain(s) well before the climax. But the chase is the whole point.
Here Noyce and his team excel. Propelled by James Newton Howard’s nerve-teasing music and enhanced by Robert Elswit’s clear-eyed, smartly positioned cameras, “Salt” moves ever forward — pushing, pushing, pushing its heroine to greater feats every minute. It doesn’t stop for martinis, either shaken or stirred, or any other detours. The movie is lean and muscular, looking for action even in situations where a little sleight of hand might have done the trick.
You do wish that maybe it did slow down to consider the human factor. Salt is married; let’s dig into that. A marriage between an agent and a civilian is never explored. In making the husband a problem that needs solving, here — not to give anything away — the movie stumbles badly. At the end of the day, “who is Salt” is less a tagline than a criticism. Eventually, you know what Salt is. But who she is isn’t satisfactorily resolved.
In story terms, that is. In Hollywood terms, there’s never any doubt: Salt is Angelina Jolie.
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