Carmike 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Hollywood Interquest, Tinseltown
I had to snort with something like derision when I heard the premise of Salt: "Angelina Jolie is a Russian spy! Or maybe not!"
Russian spies? Was it still 1982? Was this a missing James Bond film? Dredging up 20-year-old Cold War paranoia seemed like a new low for Hollywood. (And then, that genuine news story about apparent Russian spies hiding in American suburbia came along so providentially that you'd be forgiven for suspecting it was planted by Sony Pictures to bolster this would-be summer blockbuster.)
But Salt works. With breathless-nonstop-action intensity. Oh sure, it's nutty-as-a-fruitcake insane at the same time, but being hugely entertaining goes a long way toward making you not want to laugh at it. Well, OK, I did laugh a few times, more than once upon discovering I'd actually been holding my breath awaiting the outcome of the crazy chases and shootouts on screen, and more than once at the plot shenanigans.
Still, I haven't had this much pure dumb fun at the movies this summer. The "they're flying a tank" scene in The A-Team came closest, but that was just one scene. Salt is a whole movie of "flying tank" moments that are perhaps not individually that crazy, but collectively: whew!
Anyway, Angelina Jolie is Evelyn Salt, a specialist in intelligence about Russia, who works for an oil company that is actually a front for the CIA. One afternoon a defector walks in to announce that Evelyn Salt is, in fact, a spy for the Russians, a double agent. Oh, and there's also a plan about to be put into motion that will destroy America, which will begin with the assassination of the Russian president by a Russian operative in New York City.
And that ain't half the crazy. The defector tells a tale that is a conspiracy-theorist's wet dream about changeling Russian baby spies raised in the 1970s to infiltrate U.S. society — sleeper agents with footie pajamas and bedtime stories! — and now who knows how many are secretly in positions to do America harm?
So Salt is on the run, heading to New York from Washington D.C., with her colleagues — including close pal Liev Schreiber and rival Chiwetel Ejiofor — on her tail. Is she going to kill the Russian president? Is she going to stop the assassination? You'll simply have no idea what to believe, and it's downright thrilling to be kept on edge, especially by a film that is a clear heir to a long line of similar movies.
Salt is much more like director Phillip Noyce's Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger — tons of exciting car crashes, foot chases, explosions and shootouts, with MacGyver-esque cleverness, and a dollop of political and personal intrigue — than it is like his thoughtful political dramas Catch a Fire and Rabbit-Proof Fence. (It's on a par with screenwriter Kurt Wimmer's other recent fare, such as Law Abiding Citizen and Street Kings.)
At barely 90 minutes, it flies by breezily despite all the wonderful cheese and action that's crammed into it. And by the time it's done, the film has opened up its universe so cleverly that it feels like a superhero (or supervillain) origin story, one that has us begging for a sequel so we can come back and play in this world some more.