If you look at the seductive poster for Salt, you might wonder whether Angelina Jolie is a female James Bond or the spy thriller genre's latest twist on the Bond Girl. She's both. She looks like a new era's secret agent as she dons disguises and changes hair colour to elude Russians and Americans while double agents with assassination agendas (she's one of them) pursue the warring superpowers' leaders.
In its steely grey palette of the Cold War, Salt, the new summer thriller, seems like a potboiler from an earlier generation, a look back at the chilling relations of a more open belligerence between the United States and the Soviet Union. Its story, set in 2011, is far more chilling, in fact, than those relations ever were. What's new here is that the battle is being fought by Evelyn Salt (Jolie), an intelligence agent who takes a backseat to no man as she is chased, beaten and shot at, after a Russian spy identifies her as a Kremlin sleeper agent. (She also stands up to vicious torture by North Koreans.)
The fact that we don't know which side she's on for most of the movie is beside the point. You watch her the way you'd watch a star athlete. That's no exaggeration. You've never seen a spy - male or female - spend so much time running. Salt was originally conceived as Edwin A Salt, and Tom Cruise was expected to play the lead. As Bond and Bond Girl, Jolie is one of the boys, leaping from elevated roadways on to the top of a truck, and then on to another, and then on to a motorcycle. (She is reported to have done her own stunts, thanks to plenty of CGI wonders.)
Yet she's also a heart-throb, at the ready for soft close-ups (and grimaces), which add unexpected texture as they modulate the pace of this solemn rough-and-ready thriller. There's no doubt that she was the better casting choice. Under Phillip Noyce's competent but unadventurous direction, we get a gritty drama of intrigue and betrayal, surging with the twists and turns of Kurt Wimmer's script. That script serves Jolie better than it serves the fine English actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, a mistrustful CIA officer in the stiff Denzel Washington mode, or the Polish veteran Daniel Olbrychski, in the role of a Russian agent whom you've seen many times before.
You have no doubt that the film was written (and regendered) for Jolie's character. And the actress finds enough emotional depth to keep Salt from being a mere action decathlon. As thrillers go, this one is more Bourne than Bond, more rapid pacing than suspense leavened with laughs. Suaveness is sacrificed for acrobatics and pyrotechnics, although the Russian agents in Salt wear boots with knives concealed in their toes, in an homage to the 1963 Bond classic From Russia with Love.
Salt is a movie about fundamentals, not quirkiness. Jolie is here to prove that a woman spy can run and fight and kill with the male action stars. She clears that hurdle, just as she did as Lara Croft and Jane Smith. In the sequel that's sure to follow, we might get some surprises.