To prove you're worth your salt as an international spy (thriller-movie division), all you have to do is: create a stink-bomb bazooka out of ordinary office fixtures; walk barefoot out of a locked-down CIA office where a platoon of feds has you cornered; use window-ledge terpsichore to escape from your high-rise apartment (with a backpack full of artillery, disguises and your spouse's poisonous spider); blast your manacled way out of a police car using a Taser; jump off a highway bridge onto the top of a speeding semi, then onto another truck in the next lane; wear disguises that involve changing your hair color and, at least once, your sex; and all the while, look faaabulous.
A male action drama can be handed to any guy who looks fit enough to do a chin-up. (I mean, honestly: Ashton Kutcher in Killers?) The female action genre: that's pretty much Angelina Jolie. With her slim, voluptuous body, her Easter Island-idol facial features and that smoldering I-dare-you look, Jolie is one of the few contemporary star actresses who doesn't seem locked in perpetual girlhood; she was born grown up, sure of herself and ready to rumble. That makes her perfect for ballsy ladies like tomb raider Lara Croft, the assassin in Mr. & Mrs. Smith (targeting her real-life beau Brad Pitt), the daredevil pilot in Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, the seductive witch-goddess of Beowulf and a secret-society supervixen the definitive Jolie character in Wanted. She's got what no other Hollywood woman even tries for, and which is embodied among recent international stars perhaps only by Hong Kong action star Michelle Yeoh: feminismo.
In Salt, her new medium-fun espionage caper, A. Jo takes a role originally written for Tom Cruise he chose to make the jokier Knight and Day instead and manages to ratchet up the testosterone level. She's Evelyn Salt, a CIA operative who's endured torture by the North Koreans without blowing her cover. Two years later, happily married to an arachnologist who doesn't know what she does for a living, Evelyn is fingered as a double agent by a Russian defector named Orlov (Daniel Olbrychski). Cue the dragnet, the frenetic chases and the pounding James Newton Howard score. Salt spends the rest of the movie on the run from her friendly boss (Liev Schreiber), a relentless G-man (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and nearly every federal, state and city cop in the Northeast corridor. And because in a spy movie the hero needs to be pursued by outlaws as well as lawmen, Evelyn also has to watch out for a nest of Slavic superkillers bred in the Soviet Union and planted in the U.S. to carry out an assassination plot targeting two world leaders.
Honoring the core premise of a bond or Bourne film that the main character is bold and resourceful, everyone else is slow and stupid screenwriter Kurt Wimmer (he did the thrillers Equilibrium and Law Abiding Citizen) gets the talky parts over early and creates a series of set pieces to be efficiently executed by Australian director Phillip Noyce, whose resume has alternated action stuff like Clear and Present Danger with more thoughtful political dramas: Rabbit Proof Fence, The Ugly American. No more a fan of facetiousness than Jolie is, Noyce keeps the tone serious; he ignores the story's preposterous elements and lets the audience decide whether to laugh, shudder or both and whether to cheer Salt on when she is revealed to be a Cold-War Russian agent with a U.S. President in her sights.
Noyce's methods of crafting suspense are defiantly old-fashioned: low-angle shots for maximum viewer disorientation and a preference for daredevil stunt work over CGI cheating. The truck-jumping scenes recall similar acrobatics performed by Yeoh and Jackie Chan in the Police Story series from Hong Kong's golden age of action movies. (The game Jolie is said to have done many of her own stunts.) Some of the action work is even more venerable: Orlov overcomes two captors in an elevator with the old switchblade-in the-shoe-toe trick memorably used by Lotte Lenya as SMERSH agent Rosa Klebb in the second Bond film, From Russia With Love. And since the movie is rated PG-13, it can't linger over the violent scenes. But they can still be jarring, as when Evelyn breaks a man's neck with a pair of handcuffs a blow whose impact is more gruesome because it happens, it's over and Salt moves on to further mayhem.
Another item on the movie's nostalgia menu: choosing a nonexistent superpower, the former Soviet Union, as the collective antagonist. During his interrogation, Orlov lets the CIA in on a piece of alternate U.S. history: that the Lee Harvey Oswald who returned from the U.S.S.R. to America in 1962, with a Russian wife in tow, was actually a Soviet lookalike and it's the lookalike who killed JFK. Pretty silly, eh? A Russian who looks like an American, setting up a domestic life while building an undercover agenda... Wait a minute. Maybe the plot isn't so silly. Think of Anna Chapman, the sexy New Yorker recently arrested and deported as part of a cell of Russian spies. Give "Agent 90-60-90" (her measurements in centimeters) a gun, a minidress and a charismatic pout, and you've got Salt.
Angelina Jolie must appreciate the connection. According to the New York Post, she and the filmmakers invited Chapman to this week's Moscow premiere of their movie. Only problem: they can't find her. Maybe Chapman is on her latest mission, and in disguise. Look for a curvaceous guy with spiders.