Silver Screen: Salt ***

Silver Screen: Salt ***
Bryan Miller

Salt-- which comes equipped with a vague title seemingly designed for pun-based headlines like "Salt Spices up Box Office!" or "Critics Advise Using Less Salt"-- is a real throwback. Despite being released in 2010 and set in 2011, the film has a distinctive early 1990s feel: It's an action movie made for adults, with nary an actor younger than thirty present except in a few quick flashbacks; the villains are Soviet holdouts trying to recapture the glory of Mother Russia; the president is a white dude. It might double as nostalgia porn for Republicans.

The early nineties were a good time for director Phillip Noyce, who, after garnering attention with the spare, intense Dead Calm (1989), made his most successful films, the Tom Clancy adaptations Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger. Noyce's most interesting movies-- Rabbit-Proof Fence, The Quiet American, and To Catch a Fire-- came later but were unfortunately overlooked.

Salt feels like a return to form for Noyce, both for better and for worse, a spy thriller that's increasingly interested in shootouts over espionage. Angelina Jolie stars as Evelyn Salt, a Commie watcher keeping her eye on Russia after a stint of incarceration and torture at the hands of the North Koreans in a fairly convincingly brutal prologue.

Late one afternoon Russian defector Orlov (Daniel Olbrychski) walks into Salt's office, an agency building fronting as a private-sector energy firm, and claims that the lady isn't who she says she is. Orlov alleges that Salt is a deeper-than-deep-cover spy planted by the Soviets decades ago as part of a larger conspiracy to create a massive catastrophe for America on an undisclosed date, known only as "Day X." Salt, he insists, plans to assassinate the Russian president on American soil, which will set about a chain reaction of global crises and conflicts that leads to the destruction of the Untied States and a return to glory for those damn dirty Reds.

Salt's boss Ted (Liev Schreiber) insists Orlov is lying, but counter-intelligence agent Peabody (Chiwetel Ejiofor) suspects she might be hiding something. Before either man can find out more, Salt breaches security and flees, headed for New York, where, conveniently, the Russian president is set to make an appearance.

Salt is most interesting when our protagonist's motives remain unclear. Noyce and screenwriter Kurt Wimmer, the latter of whom hasn't exactly played well with ambiguity in previous duds Law Abiding Citizen and The Recruit, do a surprisingly good job of keeping the audience guessing, and for a thrilling half hour or so Salt seems like it could go anywhere.

Where it does go is decent enough, although it's a little disappointing to see it morph from mystery to flinty spy drama to outright action movie. There is some charm, however, about the movie's mounting absurdities; what starts as something like a more intimate, character-driven genre flick eventually winds up in a wildly implausible climax that wouldn't seem out of place in the goofiest of Schwarzenegger shoot 'em ups.

Salt employs essentially the same narrative hook as another action heavy spy movie from earlier in the year, the lighter but less-engaging Knight and Day, in which the major conflict is the question of star Tom Cruise's allegiance to God and country and Cameron Diaz. But from frame one of Knight and Day there's never any question about Cruise's agenda, partly because it's part romantic comedy, but also partly because Cruise is too image-conscious to portray himself as duplicitous and ominously secretive.

Jolie, on the other hand, has always been enigmatic and a little dangerous-seeming-- by new Hollywood standards, anyway-- and so it seems possible that she might actually be revealed as the villain at any time, especially with potential hero Schreiber waiting in the wings. As such, Salt generates a little bit of actual suspense, whereas Knight and Day was just coy with its too-obvious twists. (It's worth noting that Cruise was originally slated to play the lead in Salt before it was rewritten for Jolie.) Jolie is the more interesting performer in almost every way: She can convey vulnerability and fury all at once, whereas Cruise can do neither. She's adept with the physicality of the role as well, although the action choreography leaves a little to be desired-- there's only so many times you can jump-kick somebody off a nearby wall-- and gets a little silly when the spindly-limbed actress starts tossing around guys twice her size.

Salt isn't great, but it's passable entertainment. In a summer of a couple big hits and a lot of bigger misses, that'll have to do.