Fresh off her grotesque turn in the morally repugnant Wanted and her no-more-than-two-dimensional turn in Changeling, there may be no actor I want to see headline a movie right now less than Angelina Jolie. (Check that: Julia Roberts.)
And fresh off viewings of the brainy, airtight suspense of Inception, there may be no movie I wanted to see less than the twist-stuffed action (suggested by the trailer) of Salt.
That's all to report I couldn't have been less enthused about seeing Salt — and thus am appreciative that it's a slightly above-average espionage thriller. Jolie is palatable, and the film's plot tricks aren't too put-upon and jarring (in fact, are even mildly obvious).
Evelyn Salt (Jolie) is a CIA spook who may or may not be a Russian double agent intent on assassinating a high-profile political target. We first meet her "two years ago." She has been captured by North Korea and interrogated and tortured as a suspected spy. Here, knowing what I know of the plot to come (thanks, again, Salt trailer), the specter of The Manchurian Candidate is raised. (Note to filmmakers: Never make a viewer think of The Manchurian Candidate unless you're prepared to be worthy of the reference.)
Evelyn is released not because the U.S. government cares but because of the advocacy of her significant other, Mike (August Diehl). She goes back to her day job, and, present day, a defector tells the CIA that the Russian president is set to be killed by a Russian mole — and that the would-be assassin's name is Evelyn Salt.
Evelyn denies it, of course. Her partner, Winter (Liev Schreiber), believes her, and a counterintelligence officer, Peabody (Chiwetel Ejiofor), does not. Evelyn makes her escape, and the race is on to prove or disprove, to betray or not betray, to assassinate or not assassinate, to destroy the entire world or not destroy the entire world (it goes there).
Directed by Phillip Noyce (The Quiet American, The Bone Collector), the action is convincing, and some of Jolie's stunt work is particularly well-done: As Evelyn walks a ledge on a high-rise and as she jumps from the top of one semi to another on a highway, the risks seem corporeal and the tension earned. Evelyn also fabricates a pretty nifty MacGyver rocket launcher out of cleaning products and a standard office chair, and she cleverly controls the driving of a truck by tasing her carjack prisoner. Huzzah.
That's the good. The bad is mostly in a silly flashback as the defector reports on 50 years of Russian cold war tactics to bring down America. Invoking Lee Harvey Oswald and shot like the Zapruder film — grainy and in home-movie colors — the sequence comes across as a parody of itself. Or maybe you think the idea of a generation of Russian youths raised in the 1960s and '70s to think like and pretend to be American by playing Connect Four and Operation and watching The Brady Bunch is cool.
Ejiofor is, as always, a great glue guy to have in your cast. Schreiber brings instant gravity to his role. Andre Braugher is in the movie long enough to get shot.