Let's face it: The Russians were awesome movie villains. They were menacingly burly, spoke with threatening but melodic accents, and knew all kinds of colorful offensive techniques (poisoned umbrellas, brainwashing) from super-secret KGB training. In the macro picture, our ideology threatened theirs and vice versa, so neither side felt bad dispatching various cinematic stand-ins.
When the Cold War ended, Hollywood had trouble finding a new threat-to-everything-we-know to fill the gap left by our former Soviet Union adversaries. Shadowy Eastern Europeans, vague Middle Easterners and the odd French arms-merchant were auditioned, but nobody brought the flavor.
Phillip Noyce's new actioner Salt simply throws up its hands, and brings back the Russians. Their purpose is both unclear and fearsome: They want to initiate a nuclear war to achieve global superiority, and the United States is going down. So good to see you again, comrades!
But I'm rushing ahead to the ticking countdown clock. We begin with our side, riding along with some CIA agents, as they check in with a mysterious Russian defector named Orlov (Daniel Olbrychski). He says he's stopped by to activate a sleeper agent -- and surprise! It's Evelyn Salt (Angelina Jolie), the very agent interrogating him. (A coincidence that SALT is a notable U.S.-Soviet arms treaty?)
Salt denies it, but begins to act very suspiciously -- like making a crazy break for the stairway because it's her wedding anniversary and she needs to get home. (Riiiiiiight.) One colleague, Ted (Liev Schreiber), believes she's true to the U.S.A.; the other, Peabody (Chiwetel Ejiofor), calls out the brigades. To which Salt responds by quickly building a projectile bomb out of cleaning supplies. Hmmmmm ...
Soon, the three are speed-chasing each other from Washington, D.C., to New York City and back again, racking up damages to countless persons and property. Everything moves super-duper fast -- except for the door to the White House bunker, which takes f-o-r-e-v-e-r to close.
Salt's gotta go fast enough so you don't ponder its loopy plot holes. Somebody just assassinated a world leader in Manhattan, and they get picked up by a NYPD squad car and driven to Queens? Russians are turned into Americans who later turn back into Russians? Can working spooks really wear heels that high?
But for summer entertainment, it's good, silly fun (and PG-13, so the violence is relatively antiseptic). Jolie ably carries the film, though simply looking hot and fierce are the primary requisites for being an exotic female maybe-mole. And unlike those Russian spies recently uncovered in New York, Salt gets things done. Her skills range from daredevil truck-surfing and arachnology to credit fraud and hairdressing.
Jolie reputedly did a lot of her own stunt work, though she's so super-skinny here you worry for her. This role was originally written for Tom Cruise, and I daresay, most viewers should find the lithe Jolie a superior substitute to that middle-aged action figure. In one titillating scene, Salt deftly removes her tiny panties from beneath her tight business suit and tosses them over a security camera. Then, she gets back to ass-kicking while -- you could practically see the audience's collective thought-bubble -- not wearing any underwear. Pretty sure that scene would not have worked with Tom Cruise. In English, and some Russian, with subtitles.