Not every movie can survive protagonist gender reassignment, but credit the makers of “Salt” for shrewdly retooling this onetime Tom Cruise starrer as a vehicle for Angelina Jolie. As a fierce superspy and mistress of many disguises, Jolie reps the one indisputably kickass element in this brisk, professionally assembled but finally shrug-inducing thriller, which sees director Phillip Noyce applying his action chops to a predictable slice of warmed-over Cold War paranoia (recent headlines notwithstanding). One of the more anticipated entries of a blah summer, Sony release looks to extend Jolie’s streak as one of the few consistently bankable action stars, male or female, working today.
Originally titled “Edwin A. Salt,” scribe Kurt Wimmer’s present-day scenario — predicated on the threat of Russian sleeper spies waiting to trigger a massive attack on the U.S. — drew attention from Cruise and other potential male leads before capturing Jolie’s interest. In short order, Edwin became Evelyn, a transformation that required an apparently none-too-difficult rewrite, given the character’s deliberately hazy inner life and preference for action over words. Certainly the filmmakers haven’t allowed anything resembling chivalry to distract from the matter at hand, as Jolie’s Salt finds herself tortured, punched, shot, nearly gassed and forced to leap from one speeding semi to another on a busy highway — and that’s just the first hour.
The brutality begins immediately, with blonde CIA agent Evelyn Salt on the receiving end of a bloody interrogation by North Korean captors before being sprung, at great cost, by one Mike Krause (August Diehl). Two years later, the two are living in Washington, D.C., as happily married as a hunky arachnologist and a smooth undercover operative can be.
But everything changes during a seemingly routine interview between Salt and a Russian defector, Orlov (an excellent Daniel Olbrychski). In an expository sequence whose use of flashbacks and slow-build pacing are a refreshing indicator of a meticulous storyteller behind the camera (even if the story itself happens to be ludicrous), Orlov explains the presence of a hidden network of childhood-indoctrinated spies for the Motherland, and then unexpectedly fingers Salt as one of them.
A whirlwind of violence ensues as Salt denies the accusation but seemingly confirms her guilt, fleeing her CIA colleagues — led by close associate Ted Winter (Liev Schreiber) — as she searches for her now-missing husband. But once she’s broken free of her pursuers, Salt goes on the offensive, her vaguely ominous motives now signaled by a goth-black dye job, and heads to New York, where the Russian president (Olek Krupa) is scheduled to make a public appearance.
As a sexy killing machine whose true identity and intentions are intended to remain a mystery to the audience, Salt is clearly (if somewhat wishfully) being positioned as a curvier alternative to Jason Bourne. But in its efforts to spark fresh dramatic fireworks from the ashes of a past political conflict (despite an obligatory shout-out to the Middle East), “Salt” often plays like a throwback to such ’90s thrillers as Noyce’s own Tom Clancy adaptations, “Patriot Games” and “Clear and Present Danger.” Multiple presidential assassination attempts and a doomsday missile-launch crisis hardly dispel the overall moribund feel of the material; neither does a third-act twist that won’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s been paying even moderate attention.
Where the film’s old-school quality pays off, however, is in the fight sequences; if we’ve seen the stairwell attacks, slo-mo machine gunnings and rush-hour getaways many times before, they’re at least presented with coherence and crackle, and with little in the way of high-tech gadgetry (at one point, Salt builds a weapon out of a wastebasket and a fire extinguisher). Having spent most of the past decade helming politically charged prestige fare (“Catch a Fire,” “Rabbit-Proof Fence,” “The Quiet American”), Noyce rolls up his sleeves and delivers an unpretentious piece of action-movie craftsmanship that proves worthy of its star’s own consummate professionalism.
No less than in “Wanted,” “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” and the “Tomb Raider” movies, Jolie is very much in her element, submitting gamely to the mayhem and hitting crucial emotional notes with effective understatement. But the pic tries to make Salt’s identity more compelling a puzzle than it really is; her allegiances are never really in doubt, further leaching suspense and interest from the setup.
Salt’s apparent willingness to relinquish all ties for her husband’s safety may not sit well with those who like their butt-kicking feminist role models devoid of romantic feelings (even when they’re portrayed as subtly as they are here). As though aware of these concerns, the filmmakers have taken care to make the character more and more ruthless as the film progresses. This makes for some nifty sequences, as Salt descends with almost wraithlike intensity upon her attackers, but unlike the Bourne movies, “Salt” never manages to turn its death-defying stunts into character insights, never reveals psychology through action.
Schreiber gets to show off some fighting moves of his own, while the usually welcome Chiwetel Ejiofor is trapped in the role of a by-the-book CIA scold. Costume designer Sarah Edwards deserves special mention for Jolie’s many disguises, one of which, a Russian military uniform, is deployed with particular wit. Other tech credits, from James Newton Howard’s score to Robert Elswit’s widescreen lensing of Gotham and D.C. locations, are topnotch.