Film Review: Salt

Angelina Jolie again proves her action bona fides in this fast-paced but ultimately silly thriller about Russian sleeper agents targeting America.

“Who is Salt?” is the tag line for the new action mystery-thriller starring Angelina Jolie, and to answer that question risks spoiling some crucial surprises. We can tell you that CIA officer Evelyn Salt was at one time Edwin A. Salt, but the sex change was all on paper; the project, once envisioned for Tom Cruise, was retooled for Jolie’s proven skills in the action genre. We’ll also note that Evelyn Salt is quite the bad-ass, a lithe and lethal character who may very well be in league with our enemies. Is that possible? Not Angelina Jolie!

Written by Kurt Wimmer (Law Abiding Citizen), Salt is an entertaining but preposterous summer popcorn movie, like an extended episode of “24” taken to even more outlandish extremes than that credibility-defying series. From the first scene in which Evelyn is brutally interrogated in a North Korean prison, the drama literally pulls no punches just because its protagonist is now a female. The action proper begins as Evelyn prepares to celebrate her wedding anniversary with the German arachnologist who helped secure her release. But first, she must interview Orlov (Daniel Olbrychski), a Russian defector who reveals the existence of a network of Soviet sleeper agents trained to wreak havoc after pursuing quiet undercover lives in America. When Orlov names Evelyn as one of those agents, all hell breaks loose within CIA headquarters.

Counterintelligence officer Peabody (Chiwetel Ejiofor) has Evelyn detained, but when Orlov kills his CIA escorts and escapes, Salt breaks out of headquarters, proclaiming her innocence and fearful about her husband’s safety. Eluding capture after a wild chase on the Washington freeways, Evelyn heads to New York, where the Russian president is scheduled to speak at the funeral of the American vice president—and is being targeted for assassination.

The twists and turns that ensue lead the audience to question whether Salt really is the mole Orlov claims her to be, and the fierceness with which she dispatches various American agents and defenders of the law makes a compelling argument against her. Ultimately, the deceptions are deeper and the stakes higher than anything the writers cooked up in eight seasons of “24.”

The final season of “24,” in fact, elected the Russians as arch-villains, and Salt too seems a throwback to the paranoia of the Cold War (though recent revelations of Soviet spies in our midst are a publicist’s godsend). The fact that Salt will likely play in Russian multiplexes without a peep of protest is but one indication of how ludicrous its premise is. But those longing for some retro James Bond-style global-jeopardy bedlam (girl-power edition) will leave the theatre with a smile.

Salt offers more proof that there’s no one in movies today quite like Jolie: drop-dead gorgeous, charismatic, physically agile, and tough enough to duke it out with any man. Jolie begins the movie as a striking long-haired blonde, switches to inky black dye, and spends an entire sequence disguised as a male Russian military attaché who looks a bit like Rachel Maddow. Whatever the incarnation, the camera loves her.

It takes three strong actors to measure up to Jolie: Liev Schreiber as her CIA boss and one apparent defender; Ejiofor as her justifiably dubious CIA nemesis; and veteran Polish star Olbrychski, especially good and menacing as the defector who sets the nonstop narrative in motion.

Director Phillip Noyce, returning to the CIA turf he once explored with Harrison Ford in Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger, deftly handles the frenetic action set-pieces (though Jolie’s leaps from one moving vehicle to another strain believability, and the fights tend to rely on editing sleight-of-hand).

As escapist entertainments go, the fast-paced and handsomely produced Salt is a cut above the average. Just remember to take it all with a grain of…you know.