Arts & Entertainment

Movie review: Jolie is worth her 'Salt'

Espionage and IntelligencePoliticsSalt (movie)EntertainmentMoviesCentral Intelligence Agency

"Salt" the film and Evelyn Salt the character are perpetually in motion and that's a good thing for its own sake and because it keeps audiences from dwelling on how unapologetically preposterous the plot in question is.

And really, who goes to summer action movies for cast-iron logic anyway? Or for plausible characters, for that matter? You go for brisk stunts expertly executed, for well-directed action that doesn't allow you to catch your breath and for one of the preeminent action stars of our time. Yes, that would be Angelina Jolie.

With what she does here on top of "Lara Craft: Tomb Raider," "Wanted" and "Mr. & Mrs. Smith," Jolie has earned the right to be considered not a potent female action star but a potent action star period, end of story.

What makes her so good, and what is visible as she deftly navigates the unending silliness of "Salt," are traits that add up to a fierce commitment to action, a determination to make the role of a CIA agent who literally and metaphorically takes no prisoners as convincing as she can.

For one thing, although aided by stunt double Eunice Huthart, Jolie is athletic and fearless enough to do many of her own stunts, including nervy scenes of jumping from moving truck to moving truck (albeit done with the aid of cables and harnesses that were removed in post-production).

The actress is also expert at projecting the ice cold fury that makes "Salt's" fight scenes strong. Jolie's don't-mess-with-me fierceness is palpable, and it allows her to angrily throw herself into the martial arts action like she means every blow she strikes.

Her casting makes all the difference in a part that would be completely standard if a man played it. (One of the well-known ironies of Jolie's success in "Salt" is that screenwriter Kurt Wimmer originally wrote the role for a man.). It is the contrast between what cultural conditioning in general and Hollywood movies in particular tell us about women's roles and what Jolie can in fact accomplish that holds our interest here.

If "Salt" wouldn't be as effective with someone else in the title role, it also benefits greatly from the professional direction of Phillip Noyce, who put Harrison Ford through his paces in "Patriot Games" and "Clear and Present Danger." Though he can't do much about the film's shaky foundation, Noyce sets a brisk, no nonsense pace and works with Oscar-winning cinematographer Robert Elswit and veteran editor Stuart Baird ("Casino Royale," "The Legend of Zorro") to insure that no one on or off the screen has much time for reflection.

Certainly not Evelyn Salt, introduced being tortured by some angry North Koreans who don't buy her insistence that she isn't a spy. But a secret agent, as she is soon telling her super-gentle arachnologist future husband Mike ( August Diehl), is just what she is, working at a CIA front organization in Washington, D.C., for spy boss and friend Ted Winter ( Liev Schreiber).

"Salt's" action picks up, wouldn't you just know it, on Evelyn and spider-loving Mike's wedding anniversary. On her way out the door, she is called back to interrogate possible Russian defector Orlov (longtime Andrzej Wajda collaborator Daniel Olbrychski).

With Winter and counter-intelligence expert Peabody ( Chiwetel Ejiofor) looking on, Orlov tells quite a tale. He says he has spent years planting a cadre of crack Russian secret agents in the U.S. Unlike the recent real-life Russian operatives uncovered in the U.S., folks whose main accomplishment was apparently cashing their checks from Moscow, this is one deadly group intent on nothing less than completely destroying America.

More than that, Orlov says, one of his people is about to go to New York to assassinate the current Russian president, in town for a state funeral. That assassin, he announces dramatically, is none other than Evelyn Salt.

Now if there was ever a time when cooler heads should prevail, this would seem to be it, but just the opposite happens. In fact all of "Salt" is based on the notion that nothing reasonable or plausible ever happens. So when a worried Evelyn decides she has to check up on her husband and then go to New York to check out that funeral, she is forced to outsmart and outrun a building full of CIA types. Counter-intelligence's Peabody can scream "box her in" all he wants, but you might as well try to catch the wind.

Though Schreiber, Ejiofor and Olbrychski do as well as the script allows them to, human relationships, especially those between Evelyn and her husband, are the film's weakest link. On the other hand, there are compensations: "Give her a gun or a grenade," veteran stunt coordinator Simon Crane says of his star, "and there's no one better."

"Salt" is set up, as most films seem to be these days, with a sequel in mind, and that might be fun, especially since "Salt II" would become the first Hollywood blockbuster to be named after a real-life nuclear arms reduction treaty. Now that would be something to look forward to.

kenneth.turan@latimes.com

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