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Don’t mess with Angelina Jolie’s Evelyn Salt. Okay, so you can mess with her if you want (what am I, your dad?), but you’ll probably end up regretting it, because when ol Eve gets it going, she doesn’t pull punches. When the little lady sets her sights on completing a mission, you best be out of her way or risk losing a limb or two. And her motives are pretty complex, too, so good luck trying to decipher them.
That seems to be the working premise of Phillips Noyce’s “Salt”, which star Jolie as the titular character, a CIA spy who is about to retire from the exciting world of field work in order to spend the rest of her boring life with her insect-loving hubby, who she just happened to have met while on a job in North Korea. It’s actually in that miserable piece of real estate where we are first introduced to Salt, taking a beating at the hands of some North Korean tough guys. Fast-forward to many years later, and Salt is prepared to give up the dangerous life for one with husband Mike (August Diehl). That is, until a former Russian spy (Daniel Olbrychski) shows up at the CIA claiming to know about an impending assassination attempt on the visiting Russian President. And oh yeah, he says Salt is the Russian sleeper agent tasked with the dirty job.
Before you can say, “Well, that was unexpected”, Salt is on the lam, fleeing from her longtime CIA buddy Ted Winter (Live Schreiber) and the Agency’s mole buster, the improbably named Peabody (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who is just so gosh-darn gung-ho and determined to take her down any way he can. But if Salt is being set up and she’s not who they say she is, why does it look like she’s actually trying to take out the Russian prez…? Well okay, I could tell you the answer, but what would be the fun of that? Suffice to say, Evelyn Salt is one tough hombre, and after what is essentially a 30-minute chase across Washington D.C., Salt prepares to strike back at her enemies.
Directed by Phillip Noyce, who has done his fair share of high-octane spy thrillers, counting two Jack Ryan movies to his credit, and written by Kurt Wimmer, who last tackled spy intrigue in the similarly CIA-themed “The Recruit” (Wimmer also wrote “The Thomas Crown Affair” and “Law Abiding Citizen”), “Salt” certainly comes into theaters with plenty of bona fides in the spy movie game. The film is a fast mover, and after a lengthy chase in the first act, the story never really slows or takes time out to announce its intentions until the very end. In that respect, audiences are likely to be sitting in their seats wondering what the hell is going on, trying to outguess the film’s characters (and indeed, Salt’s motives), and finding a whole lot about “Salt” to be quite clever in its ability to constantly surprise you.
But “Salt” wouldn’t work without a convincing lead, and Jolie more than fits the bill. It’s not like action work is new to Jolie, who has kicked ass and shot it out with the best of them in movies like “Mr. and Mrs. Smith”, the “Tomb Raider” films, and more recently, the surprise hit “Wanted”. So yeah, Angelina Jolie knows a thing or two about selling an action movie as its main leading character. She’s in charge here from the very first moment, and there’s a great scene where Salt’s super badass CIA agent instincts simply switches on when she realizes there are no other alternatives left for her. Trust me when I say that Jolie deserves every million they paid for her for this role, because oh man does she take a beating in the film.
The fact that Salt is a woman and not a man (the role was originally set to star Tom Cruise) makes her twice as effective. A man would never have been able to bring the soft femininity and manly brawn that Jolie so expertly provides. Make no mistake about it: “Salt” is essentially a one-woman show, with Jolie onscreen almost the entire time, and everyone else proving to be little more than bit players with their little small parts that, when cobbled together, make up a bigger whole. Wimmer’s script was reportedly extensively rewritten to accommodate Jolie entering the picture, so major props to Wimmer, who hasn’t always hit the mark when it comes to scripts (“Ultraviolet” comes to mind), but here he gets almost all of the ball.
If you’re looking for thrill rides, “Salt” is your roller coaster. Noyce has directed a fine action thriller, though obviously any real woman wouldn’t be able to survive 10% of the things Salt goes through to complete her mission in the movie. After all, I doubt if your average (or even highly trained CIA agent – male or female) could really play leap frog with semi-trucks moving at a high rate of speed on a congested freeway. But hey, that’s why they call it the movies, and despite those over-the-top moments, there are enough grit and realism in “Salt” to make it one of the better action movies of recent years. The fact that you’ll be constantly trying to guess the film’s many twists and turns, and for the most part coming up very wrong, makes it that much more rewarding.
Phillip Noyce (director) / Kurt Wimmer (screenplay)
CAST: Angelina Jolie … Evelyn Salt
Liev Schreiber … Ted Winter
Chiwetel Ejiofor … Peabody
Daniel Olbrychski … Vassily Orlov
August Diehl … Mike Krause
Daniel Pearce … Young Orlov
Hunt Block … U.S. President Lewis
Andre Braugher … Secretary of Defense