REVIEW: Salt, Angelina Jolie Deliver the Action-Packed Summer Blockbuster Goods
Somewhere midway through Phillip Noyce's exhilarating, over-the-top yet strangely modest action-thriller Salt, Angelina Jolie, as on-the-run CIA agent Evelyn Salt, ducks into a ladies' room to dress a nasty-looking flesh wound -- with a maxi-pad. It's an elegant and ingenious solution to a sticky problem. But then, Salt is a do-it-yourselfer, a resourceful spy who has been trained by the best. She can fashion last-minute weapons from common household items (fire-extinguisher flamethrower, anyone?) and leap off overpasses onto moving semi-trucks with the grace of a lemur (a creature that, with her wide-open, smoky-rimmed eyes, she somewhat resembles). Salt could surely, as an old perfume commercial -- borrowing straight from Peggy Lee -- used to say, bring home the bacon and fry it up in the pan. But who'd want to watch that?
Like its star, Salt is a spare and lean piece of work; it's everything a modern action movie should be, a picture made with confidence but not arrogance, one that believes so wholeheartedly in its outlandish plot twists that they come to make perfect alt-universe sense. The story -- the script is by Kurt Wimmer -- draws numerous outrageous loops, but Noyce neither dwells on them ponderously nor speeds through them in a misguided attempt to energize his audience. And he makes fine use of his star, an actress whose lanky gait is as delicious to watch as her spring-loaded leaps are. Noyce frames the movie around Jolie's finely tuned sense of movement, and yet it's her expressiveness that anchors the story emotionally: In an old-fashioned, old-Hollywood way, Noyce and his cinematographer, Robert Elswit, are wholly alive to her face and all its possibilities.
The movie opens with a flashback, jolting us back to early-2000's North Korea. A semi-naked Salt is being tortured by soldiers in a dank-looking dungeon. They keep insisting she's a spy; she keeps repeating, with unwavering authority, "I'm not a spy, I'm a businesswoman" -- movie shorthand for "Of course I'm a spy, you nitwits." Shortly thereafter, our bruised and battered heroine is freed as part of a deal with the U.S. government; her colleague, Ted Winter (played by a sly, sharp Liev Schreiber), escorts her away from that North Korean prison and toward the man responsible for getting her freed: Her arachnologist love interest (played by German actor August Diehl, who also appeared in Inglourious Basterds), the man she'll later marry.
Cut to present-day Washington, where Evelyn Salt has scaled back her spy duties to focus on things like learning fancy ways of folding napkins for her upcoming wedding anniversary celebration. Suddenly, a badly shaven Russian defector named Orlov (Daniel Olbrychksi) shows up at her workplace, ready to spill secrets. He reveals a nutso plot hatched years ago, designed to restore Russia to its former glory as a superpower, in which cute tykes are trained as tough little superspies who will eventually grow up and infiltrate the U.S. government from within. (We see these wee tots in flashback, wearing matched stripey shirts and respectfully kissing the ring of their feared and beloved spymaster as they're being indoctrinated into the church of spyhood.)
Although Salt is openly dismissive of Orlov's revelation, it clearly rattles her, and her boss, Peabody (the always regal Chiwetel Ejiofor), begins to wonder what the hell is up. Schreiber's Winter, on the other hand, defends his colleague and close friend. And Salt knows, as we do, that something terrible is about to happen, and she races back to her apartment to change clothes, jury-rig the aforementioned flamethrower, and make sure the family dog is safe, approximately in that order. Then, as any sensible person would, she climbs out the window of her pre-war apartment building, clinging to its stone lintels like an extremely glamorous spider-monkey; it's the first of numerous feats of derring-do that also include jumping onto the tops of several fast-moving vehicles and beating the crap out of a crew of leering baddies.
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