The Cold War heats up again in "Salt," an old-school spy-versus-spy action film complete with elaborate car and foot chases, deadly sleeper agents and frosty-eyed, vodka-shooting Soviet stalwarts who lament the fall of communism and chortle evilly over the possibility of destroying the United States.
In a way, Phillip Noyce’s film is the anti-“Inception”: It’s never dazzling, but it’s never confusing, either. It’s a Bourne movie minus the exotic locations and sickening handheld camera, and its head spy has way better lips than Matt Damon.
Give or take a double-cross or two, Noyce (“Catch a Fire,” “The Quiet American”) offers a straightforward thriller, and anybody who prefers to watch movies without resorting to extensive cerebral gymnastics should enjoy the familiar ride, which comes with a swift pace and a solid cast.
Angelina Jolie is happily in tough-girl mode here as modern-day CIA agent Evelyn Salt, married to a mild-mannered German scientist (August Diehl, one of the German soldiers who got splattered all over the bar in “Inglourious Basterds”). Salt excels in her job, although she does prompt a fair question to the United States government: Do you really want your top covert-mission specialist to look quite that conspicuous?
No matter. Salt is tough, smart, resourceful and exquisitely trained; she survived a stint in a North Korean prison, even. She probably could’ve ended the Cold War faster than Ronald Reagan, given the opportunity – though for which side remains somewhat in question. See, a Russian source has accused Salt of being a sleeper agent, saying she was brainwashed by the Soviets as a child and is preparing to unleash a can of communist whoop-ass on U.S. soil. Salt’s colleagues are split. One (Liev Schreiber) steadfastly refuses to believe the accusation is true. Another (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is suspicious and thinks an investigation is warranted. And then Salt runs, justifying his skepticism and throwing the federal agency into a tizzy.
The rest of the film is basically one chase after another, but Noyce choreographs his action carefully and sets up a nicely paranoid scenario that makes it hard to trust any of the characters. The screenplay is more fond of cheap tricks than it should be, and “Salt” can’t quite survive an in-depth analysis. Still, there’s a good bit of fun to be had with this throwback, even though it’s not the most original movie at your local theater.
* * *
Cast: Angelina Jolie, Liev Schreiber, Chiwetel Ejiofor, August Diehl
Director: Phillip Noyce
Running time: 1:40
Rated: PG-13; intense sequences of violence and action