After spending the last decade trying to reinvent classic genres or cash in on toy franchises, the people responsible for Hollywood's blockbusters have forgotten how to make something they used to excel at: popcorn movies that can actually thrill adults. Luckily for us Phillip Noyce never forgot, and he's back in fine form with Salt, a movie more like his early 90s spy landmarks A Clear and Present Danger and Patriot Games than anything that's come since. Salt feels old-fashioned in all the right ways, from its Cold War paranoia to a refreshing lack of technology; anchored by a fierce performance from Angelina Jolie and running at a swift 100 minutes, it's everything you could ask for from a summer movie.
The premise would have seemed preposterous until a few weeks ago, when 11 accused Russian spies were arrested in New York, but even so it takes a while to embrace the idea that CIA agent Evelyn Salt (Jolie), accused of being a Russian mole, must go on the run in order to prove her innocence and learn her true identity. She flees not just because her hard-nosed superior Peabody (Chiwetel Ejiofor) doesn't believe her and her fellow spy pal Winter (Liev Schreiber) can't convince him otherwise, but she fears for the safety of her gentle German-born husband (August Diehl), an arachnologist who was once tough enough to bust Salt out of a North Korean prison, but apparently doesn't have what it takes to stand up against the CIA. Or the KGB. Or both.
For, you see, Salt isn't just an innocent woman on the run. As we learn in a series of flashbacks and convoluted speeches, her loyalties may be more compromised than you would expect from a woman who lives in D.C. and wears tailored suits to work. While Salt's heroism is never really in doubt-- she's played by Angelina Jolie, after all-- Kurt Wimmer's script deftly plays with our trust of the character, constantly doling out new information that shifts our perspective, and allowing Salt to commit pretty impressive feats of violence without exactly knowing why she's on the attack. All this shifting would be frustrating if it weren't for Peabody and Winter, two more potential heroes on Salt's tail, both of whom also earn and lose our trust throughout the film. The script is fairly shallow when it comes to delving into character emotions and leaves some major plot turns unexplored, but it pulls off a pretty neat trick of presenting three characters who can be villains and heroes simultaneously.
Noyce keeps all the plates spinning marvelously, executing hair-raising action sequences-- particularly one of Jolie jumping from car to car on the freeway, and an brutal fight scene on a barge-- and walk-and-talk politics with equal confidence. He tosses in a little of the Greengrass-inspired shaky cam during some fight sequences, but unlike nearly everyone else who mimics that style, Noyce can actually pull it off. Jolie has brought on board her longtime stunt coordinator Simon Crane, and she's never looked more convincing as both a badass and a human being. Noyce's confidence in his leading lady (the two collaborated ten years ago on The Bone Collector), combined with Robert Elswit's fluid cinematography and Crane's fearless stunt choreography, invent Salt as a believably female Bourne or even Bond. At 35 Jolie is a little older than the typical female action hero, but that makes Salt all the more compelling as she repeatedly pulls off the impossible in her battle against the world.
Ejiofor and Schreiber are perfectly tense and well-used in their supporting roles, but Salt is Jolie's vehicle, and she owns every frame. Salt was famously rewritten to star a male protagonist, and it was Jolie's influence that kept the character from ever abusing her sex appeal, and allowed her to become increasingly dirty and disheveled as the movie reaches its action climax. We're a long way from Tomb Raider, and its encouraging to see Jolie use her immense starpower to create a female heroine who successfully exists apart from the male-dominated world she must struggle against. Salt the movie is refreshing in its old-school familiarity, but Salt the character is remarkable and new. It's a powerful combination that makes for some pretty ideal entertainment.