Salt (Columbia Pictures) is a movie that’s almost impossible to review without blundering into the demilitarized zone between exposition and spoilers. Just about everything that happens from the fifth minute on out is a twist, with so many double-fakeouts and reversals that you finally realize there’s only one principle you need to grasp to finish the ride: Angelina Jolie rules.
Though the movie uses geopolitics as a backdrop, positing a secret network of Russian moles planted among the American population, the only real superpower in Salt’s world is Jolie’s character, Evelyn Salt, who, as the film begins, is a blond CIA agent interrogating a seemingly unbalanced Russian defector (Daniel Olbrychski). The man insists that Salt is actually a Russian double agent who was taken from her parents as a baby and trained at a Soviet spy camp as part of an evil plan to reignite the Cold War. For reasons that aren’t at first—or, OK, ever—entirely clear, Salt’s supervisor (Chiwetel Ejiofor) takes these outlandish accusations at face value from the get-go and orders an immediate lockdown of the office. Soon, Salt is barricaded in a conference room armed only with a cart of cleaning supplies and her black thong underwear, both of which are deployed MacGyver-style in her spectacular escape.
A few car chases later, Salt is no longer blond, no longer working for the CIA, and very possibly no longer Evelyn Salt. It’s the metaphysical rug-pull of Salt’s unstable identity that gives the story its kick. Has our hero become our villain? Why does her CIA colleague Ted (Liev Schreiber) continue to believe in Salt’s innocence, even as she makes the case against herself by continuing to flee? And what has become of Salt’s husband, a gentle German entomologist (August Diehl)?
Though Salt will appeal to Bourne fans, it’s slicker and less gritty than those films. Also, Evelyn Salt is more inscrutable and less vulnerable than Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne; every time we think she’s revealed a truth about herself, it’s eventually exposed as a bluff. Had a man played the lead role, which was originally written for Tom Cruise, Salt would have come off as dated and predictable. With a woman—with this woman—all the invincible-spy clichés feel fresh and fun again. Jolie gets to doctor her own wounds in a bar bathroom, scale the side of a building, leap down an elevator shaft, and—most impressively—pull off at least three successful makeovers by giving herself chic haircuts and stealing fab wardrobes on the fly.
As she did in the graphic-novel adaptation Wanted, Jolie makes for a natural action hero. Her physical confidence and self-possession are absolute, and even if she’s not doing all of her own stunts, she makes you believe she could. She’s having great fun, but it’s not smug, jokey James Bond fun. Though the story is ridiculous, she plays her character straight, and though the inconclusive last sequence is a shameless setup for a sequel, you give it a pass because, truth be told, you’re not quite ready to be done with the icy, invincible Evelyn Salt.
The audience’s relationship to Jolie as an off-screen superhero—a bona-fide, old-school movie star—makes her ludicrously competent character seem contiguous with her real-life persona. After leaping from overpasses down onto the roofs of semis and single-handedly dispatching a White House bunker full of armed guards, it seems perfectly logical that Salt—if that really is her name—might stop off at the U.N., make a speech about world hunger, then head home to nurse the twins and have sex with Brad Pitt.