"Salt" adds flavor to summer movie menu

Sun Jul 18, 2010 1:58pm EDT
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By Kirk Honeycutt

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - 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, Lite summer entertainment that should throw consider 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 astonish 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 embarrassing 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 transform 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.   Continued...

<p>Actors Angelina Jolie (L) and Chiwetel Ejiofor pose during the launch of their movie "Salt" in Cancun June 30, 2010. Reuters/Gerardo Garcia</p>