Oh, to return to the old school spy-action flicks, the ones full of Manchurian candidates, talking computers, secret bunkers, nuclear bombs, fake deaths brought on by the venom of exotic spiders, and bad guys we can mostly understand and hate without reservation. “Salt” is a throwback to the Col War era, and perhaps even further, and the fact that it purportedly takes place in the present day is just the beginning of its ridiculous notions that director Philip Noyce asks the audience to swallow. But he asks so nicely, you’ll find yourself willing and able, for the most part.
“Salt” is, for the most part, one extended chase scene. One of its glories is that nobody slows down to explain anything; this is just as well, because the explanations likely wouldn’t make any sense anyway. Angelina Jolie is the titular character, a CIA operative/loving wife who is on her way home for her anniversary dinner when a grizzled Russian (Daniel Olbrychski) appears and accused her of being a Russian sleeper agent. She blows him off, he kills a few guards in an elevator (knives in his shoes somehow didn’t set off the metal detector at the front door) and then she bolts. Is she a Russian spy, or is she just afraid for her husband’s life? If you’re really asking that question, you’re thinking too much and missing the point of this movie. CIA agents Chiwetl Ejiofor and Liev Schrieber give chase. By the way, Ejiofor and Schrieber are both award-winning Shakespearean actors. This may or may not have something do with their ability to catch up with Angelina Jolie.
Sometimes “Salt” operates like a Bourne film, though it never feels as smart. Jason Bourne was certainly a fine fighter, but what made those movies so much fun was his “MacGyver” side – he could kill you with a ballpoint pen. Aside from one stunt involving a fire extinguisher and a talent for shoplifting, Salt, well, she just kills people, primarily security guards standing in hallways and outside doors who seem to have absolutely no notion that someone is likely to fall out of the ceiling panels and karate chop them to death. You gotta feel sorry for these guys; they seem to think they’re Maytag repairmen.
This summer has been filled with movies in which the actors seem to be having more fun than the audience. “Grown Ups” wasn’t funny, but the actors were having a grand old reunion; “The A-Team” seemed downright smug about how preposterous its stunts were. “Salt” is just as big and dumb as those films, but what sets it apart is that it truly seems to be about its business; that is, entertaining the audience. No smirks in this one. What a relief.
Jolie has attempted in the past few years to make serious movies that win awards (“Changeling,” “A Mighty Heart”) but hasn’t had much success. There are plenty of actors and actresses whom I wish would get more serious about their craft (I don’t think I’ll ever forgive Anne Hathaway for following “Rachel Getting Married” with “Bride Wars”) but Angelina Jolie isn’t one of them. She has a feline grace that needs to be exhibited in action movies like this one. Perhaps the greatest achievement of “Salt” is that it manages to show off Angelina Jolie without showing off her, um, assets. There is one brief and very unsexy scene at the beginning in which she is tortured in her underwear; aside from that, she stays very sensibly dressed. And yet the screen is dominated by the way she moves, the confidence in her gait and manner, the way she looks as she kicks ass and takes names. This is what an action hero is supposed to look like. Jolie is an actress of remarkable physicality; it’s nice that we can finally separate concept that from sexuality, which is a different thing altogether.