3 out of 4 stars
The careers of many — make that most — women after they’ve won the Academy Award for Supporting Actress have been so dismal, some talking heads have actually likened it to a curse.
After receiving that award in 1999 for “Girl, Interrupted” Angelina Jolie’s career has been anything but dismal. Once and still the highest-profile actress on the planet, Jolie remains in the public eye more because of her personal life than her often impressive professional work, which in the last decade has still been iffy. Yet even when her movies fail to perform, she emerges unscathed. Like Ronald Reagan, she’s protected by an impenetrable Teflon coating.
When in full-blown action-adventure mode (“Wanted,” the “Tomb Raider” franchise), Jolie is an unstoppable force of nature, both on screen and at the box office. As unlikely as it may seem, she is still the most bankable action hero performer (man or woman) in the business.
Originally earmarked for Tom Cruise (who chose to do the strikingly similar “Knight and Day” instead), the lead role fell into Jolie’s lap and with just a modicum of script tweaking, it fits her like a glove. This movie has blockbuster written all over it.
Clocking in at an economical and compact 100 minutes, “Salt” takes minimum amount of time with back story and proceeds to serve up non-stop, meat-and-potatoes action for the duration. Not only is it the best “James Bond” movie since “GoldenEye,” it marks a welcome return to ’60s and ’70s spy thrillers where Cold War-era Russia provided what seemed like an endless supply of sturdy and dependable cinematic villains.
Happily married to a German writer, Evelyn Salt (Jolie) has an impeccable service record and is held in high esteem by her CIA co-workers. During an interrogation, a possible Russian defector accuses Salt of being a sleeper-cell double agent. Although she categorically denies the charge, she slips into full defense posture, breaches security and takes it on the lam.
Salt’s direct supervisor Ted Winter (Liev Schreiber) is sure she’s been slandered and tries to convince his more clear-headed fellow agent Peabody (Chiwetel Ejiofor) of her innocence, to no avail. With Salt now dissipated into the wind and a major international gathering that includes the current Russian and American presidents coming up, the entire U.S. intelligence community is on high alert.
Viewers are likely to suffer a momentary flash of disappointment when the “is she or isn’t she” question regarding Salt’s allegiance is answered less than halfway through the film. The same thing might happen when early, seemingly minor plot discrepancies later turn into gaping holes. Also no person, no matter how talented or elusive, could pull off what Salt does here and in a few spots the story borders on self-parody.
The good news is that most audiences — and even a few film critics — don’t go into a movie like “Salt” expecting air-tight logic. We go for the adrenaline-fueled action and on just that level “Salt” never fails to deliver. For this everyone needs to thank Australian director Philip Noyce.
Having spent the last 10 years churning out intelligent, under-the-radar art films, Noyce displayed some serious mainstream/action chops in the late ’80s and early ’90s with the hat trick that was “Dead Calm,” “Patriot Games” and “Clear and Present Danger.” The latter two — based on Tom Clancy novels and starring Harrison Ford — made Noyce an ideal choice for “Salt” and his absolute minimal dependency on CGI here lends the production an earthy, old-school level of believability most technology-dependent directors couldn’t fathom.
“Salt” isn’t perfect but it is one of the very few 2010 non-sequel live-action movies worth its weight in a most obvious pun. (Sony/Columbia)