Salt is proof positive that Angelina Jolie is as much a movie star as she is an actress. Her bee-stung lips and comic-book bad-girl sultriness aside, Jolie has a ferocious charisma that consumes everything in its path. So all-encompassing is her persona that even Leiv Streiber, who stands twice her size, fights to be noticed on the screen beside her. While Salt implausibly suggests that a 110-pound beauty can kick the shit out of a room full of secret service muscleheads, Jolie convinces you that she can.
And that's the least implausible scenario this Reagan-era-style action flick puts forth. Like a second-rate paperback thriller come to life, Salt is an unabashed throwback to Cold War conspiracies and ludicrous Robert Ludlum-like plotting (ironic, given that Hollywood had the good sense to update his Bourne character).
It's the 1980s all over again, as Soviet stalwarts activate long-dormant sleeper agents in an elaborate plot to assassinate the Russian and American presidents and nuke Mecca in order to incite a Muslim holy war against the United States. Was Dick Cheney a consultant on this thing? Jolie is a super CIA operative who is revealed to be one of the double agents. Or is she? The script is less successful at hiding its intentions than Jolie, who goes on the run to either enact her nefarious plot or thwart the architects behind it. At stake? Her gentle spider-loving husband, who appears on screen almost as long as one of her wigs.
There's nonstop shooting, shouting and chasing, but none of the action scenes really stands out. A truck-hopping freeway pursuit has some zing, the shootouts are tense, but the best moment comes near the end with a nifty (and over-the-top) strangling. Aussie director Phillip Noyce (Patriot Games, Clear and Present Danger, The Quiet American), back from his self-imposed indie film exile, keeps things brisk and breathless, but it's nothing we haven't seen before on 24. In fact, Salt has many things to recommend against it (an early, laughably on-the-nose monologue-montage by Russkie villian Orlov makes clear we're in subplot-free, hack screenwriting territory) and yet the movie remains perplexingly watchable.
Part of it is Noyce's no-frills direction, part of it is the crafty editing of Stuart Baird and John Gilroy, but most of the credit goes to Jolie, who is almost mystical in her ability to draw your attention. At this point, it seems almost impossible for the actress to submerge herself into a role deep enough that we forget who we're watching. Her star wattage is simply too powerful. But for an inscrutable, unbending character-sketch like Salt, she's a perfect fit, sliding into whatever emotional face suits the situation. Since the film doesn't pretend to be coherent — its schematic plot points simply connect the set pieces — she can serve each of its set pieces as presented, delivering a consistent and convincing performance even as her character becomes more and more unconvincing. Strangely, had Noyce juiced up his direction a la the delirious Shoot 'Em Up, the film might have left more of an impression.
It's worth noting that the original screenplay, Edwin A. Salt, was written for a male protagonist, and seems to have lost nothing in its gender translation. In fact, had Tom Cruise remained committed to playing the lead, the movie probably wouldn't get the pass it's getting now.
Jeff Meyers is a film critic for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.