"Salt" is a throwback to pre-"Bourne" spy movies, where a subterranean level of stupidity was acceptable so long as there was plenty of mayhem. But despite enough hand-to-hand combat to glut an MMA marathon, this movie is about as much fun as getting slugged in the head.
Angelina Jolie plays CIA spook Evelyn Salt as a doting wife, dog lover and no-nonsense careerist in the traditionally masculine world of spycraft. Then a walk-in defector fingers her as a long-dormant Brezhnev-era Russian mole and she bolts, becoming a blank-faced killing machine.
In clunky flashbacks we learn that a Russian spy program replaced Lee Harvey Oswald with a clone and that legions of similar undercover operatives are scattered across the free world, awaiting the signal to strike. A cadre of Communist no-goodniks plans to drive the United States and Russia to the nuclear brink. Salt's lethal race from Washington, D.C., to New York City may be her attempt to launch the plot -- or quash it.
The film's slender claim on our attention is the protagonist's ambiguous identity. Is she a Soviet asset activated by Cold War diehards or a falsely accused American patriot trying to protect her unsuspecting husband? On the one hand, she terminates armies of U.S. agents and policemen aiming to capture her. Then again, she puts the havoc on hold to rescue her adorable terrier from her ransacked apartment and place it with an even more adorable neighbor kid before proceeding with her getaway. So how bad could she be?
Innocent, insists her CIA team leader Ted Winter (Liev Schreiber, a smug, lunkish actor of limited resources). Guilty, declares counterintelligence officer Peabody (Chiwetel Ejiofor, who can deliver a convincing, vital performance even as a character no one wanted to develop). Fakeouts and red herrings abound before this germ of an idea begins to induce dizziness and lethargy. The movie's Big Secret dwindles to BS.
It doesn't help that the twiglike Jolie is put in action scenes that would cripple Jason Statham. She yanks a speeding motorcyclist off his bike with a jujitsu wrist lock. She pursues a descending elevator down the shaft by doing a friction slide down parallel girders. She stomps squads of burly assassins into Beefaroni. I'm all for equal opportunity for female action heroes (and am especially partial to the dirty charms of Milla Jovovich in the "Resident Evil" series). But Jolie, who could be the spokesmodel for the pipe cleaner industry, is preposterous in these David-and-Goliath smackdowns. Why not give her heat vision and be done with it?
Director Philip Noyce, who made the Tom Clancy potboilers "Patriot Games" and "Clear and Present Danger," puts us through an ordeal, not an adventure. He demonstrates a talent for slickly choreographed turmoil (and a deep-seated hatred for police cars: Blammo!) but little interest in characterization or emotion. If you like to watch your Oscar winners bounding across speeding trucks on a highway rather than acting, look no further. If you're after an engrossing action movie, keep looking.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186