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Who is Salt? That’s what every ad and billboard for director Philip Noyce’s (Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger) return to big-budget action asks. And whose face is plastered on these ads? Angelina Jolie. So, than guess who Salt is? Very good.

Those ads have made me chuckle for months seeing as how we don’t really need to wonder what character Jolie is playing. Having finally seen the movie, it’s become quite clear that such a question has a double meaning. Indeed, who Salt is beyond her name becomes the real question and actually what she is appears to be a more appropriate question as well as the driving force of the movie.

Anyone who’s seen a trailers or TV spots for Salt knows what to expect in this conspiracy action thriller. Produced by Lorenzo di Bonaventura (the “Transformers” movies), someone who knows a thing or three about mindless action movies, this is a spy game that at least has its head (mind you, it’s a bobble-head) on its shoulders. While viewers won’t have to park their brain to enjoy the ride here, it does exist in a modern-day reality that doesn’t stop for details or in-depth characterization. Not that one is really expecting such elements in a ballsy and preposterous action flick starring one of the most noteworthy (yes, noteworthy….she can carry a drama or an action flick, folks) and bankable actresses alive and working today.

Evelyn Salt (Angelina Jolie), is a veteran CIA agent who lives with her loyal German spider-researcher husband (Michael Krause, Inglourious Basterds) and their dog in D.C. All is well as they approach their anniversary, until one afternoon when she and her superior and friend, Ted Winter (Liev Schrieber), are asked to stay late to deal with a troublesome Russian defector (Daniel Olbrychski) who claims he has vital information.

He goes on and on about how the Russians have trained sleeper agents and assassins for decades and then boasts that Salt is one of them, planted here to take part in destroying America. All interrogation scans show this guy is telling the truth, so what are her peers to think?

Such a declaration sends Salt running, which doesn’t bode well for her innocence, of course. She’s more concerned about her husband’s safety and making sure her backflip off a perfectly good freeway lands her safely on an oncoming truck below. CIA director Peabody (Chiwetel Ejiofor) could care less about the truth and sends her fellow agents after her in droves. He just wants her contained until then her actions have him convinced she is guilty.

Once Salt’s heels are off, the chase is on, as we see her turn into a one-woman army capable of turning anything into a weapon while breaking into anything she sees fit. Barreling through the capital, than New York and back at a dizzying pace, we start to wonder where Salt’s loyalty lies as well as what exactly she is going to do to clear this mess up.

There are very few women who could command such a performance and headline this type of film as well as Angelina Jolie. I bring this up because for so long such a film has been associated with a male lead in mind. Don’t believe me? When Jolie first read the script, the main character was named Evan A. Salt and originally Tom Cruise was attached to star. Cruise declined due to other obligations and was also feeling audiences had seen enough of him doing the spy thing before (but not the kooky spy thing he went on to play in Knight and Day).

The story actually benefits by the gender change, especially since Jolie is so believable and charismatic as the woman on the run. I was sore just watching her tumble from one moving truck to another. Right away, it’s clear this isn’t a vanity project for Jolie, her face is battered and bloodied from start to finish. Since Jolie (reuniting with her director on The Bone Collector) easily and convincingly carries the movie with little effort, it’s obvious that there was no need for this Salt character to be peppered with testosterone.

The film may even benefit from the fact that actual Russian spies were discovered in the U.S. recently, making the story’s plot not so far-fetched. But I doubt that will play any factor in the mind’s of viewers or in the overall success of this fun film. Audiences will come to check out Jolie, wanting to see her kick-butt and they will find just that.

Jolie is in frenzied overdrive throughout, using not only her fists and kicks but also her looks. She convincingly goes from blond to Goth brunette and sells it well….except for the part where she disguises herself as a man. C’mon Angie! Really?

Co-written by Brian Hegeland (The Bourne Supremacy) and Kurt Wimmer (Law Abiding Citizen) in a manner that replaces gratifying details with satisfying thrills, this is a film concerned more with movement than moving viewers. They get a little carried away with the cartoonish Russian backstory, to the point of including Lee Harvey Oswald in the mix, of all people.

Really, this is not a script that needs to make time for anything beyond getting to point A to point “wherever” at a frantic pace, which it executes efficiently. Sacrificing any real characterization, we’re left to care about Salt more out of curiosity since we haven’t really invested in who she is but rather in what she does.

Therein, lies the question again: Who is Salt? The woman Salt is a seemingly impenetrable lethal weapon and the movie Salt is her obnoxious vehicle which defies realism. Who knows if we’ll find out more about her in the sequel(s) that are bluntly hinted at toward the end?

A more thought-provoking thriller would be welcome but more of the same would be just fine as long as Jolie is back. Clearly, the studios couldn’t do a sequel without Jolie, so it remains entirely up to her. Like the condiment you find on a restaurant table, with this Salt you know how it's gonna taste. Noyce and Jolie deliver just the right amount of estrogen-infused seasoning, preserving a familiar genre.

(This review also appears on David's own website, Keeping It Reel.)

David J. Fowlie

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