Salt (***)

By Dwight Brown NNPA Film Critic

Whatever Angelina Jolie was paid for starring in this nail-biting action thriller, she deserved each and every million. She’s the first woman to command an action movie, on this level, since Sigourney Weaver in Aliens or Anne Parillaud in La Femme Nikita.

The script by “Tomas Crown Affair” scribe Kurt Wimmer was originally intended for a male lead. Switching the role to a female was brilliant. Casting the brooding, volatile Jolie was genius. This film is not a head case like Inception. It’s a moment-to-moment, chase-to-chase, fight scene-to-fight scene action movie. Most films of this genre take a while to get going. This one barely takes a breath before Jolie is running for her life, then fighting a swarm of agents and spies.

Hell breaks lose when CIA officer Evelyn Salt questions a Russian spy/defector in an interrogation room viewed by agents and superiors. The turncoat swears a sleeper spy mole has infiltrated the CIA. When Evelyn ask for a name, he says the unfathomable, “Salt.” Before she can bat an eye, counter-intelligence agent William Peabody (Chiwetel Ejiofor, “American Gangster”) cast an accusatory glance. Salt’s partner Ted Winter (Live Schreiber, “X-Men Origins: Wolverine”) attempts to defend her reputation. But once Salt feels her innocent husband might be at risk, she bolts. According to the defector, Salt’s mission is to kill the Russian Primer Minster while he attends the funeral of the U.S. Vice-President.

The lightening-quick beginning that sets the film in non-stop motion is a blessing and a curse. For a distinguished CIA officer to go from hero to zero in a few minutes doesn’t seem real. But again, this is an old-fashioned action thriller, and realism is not the point. Taken for what it is, Salt delivers well-paced kinetic scenes (editor John Gilroy also cut Michael Clayton), shot with great imagination (Robert Elswit, Oscar-winning cinematographer for There Will Be Blood), directed by Philip Noyce, the dean of action/espionage thrillers, who honed his skills on films like Clear and Present Danger and Patriot Games.

Wimmer’s script is intriguing. When it’s strong it takes the time to develop the Salt character so you care about her childhood, marriage and betrayals. The error is that there are so many flashbacks detailing the past that these edits take away from forward momentum. A Russian official may be assassinated and Salt has to clear here name. That’s what’s important, not her life as a kid abused by Russian agents.

Though the film and the script may have flaws, Jolie has none. She’s photogenic. She emotes like an Oscar-winner. She handles action/fight scenes like a man, even if an occasional body-double does the heavy lifting. She commands the screen on the level of a Will Smith or Tom Cruise. Though it’s unlikely that a tall, model-thin woman could beat up so many husky men, she makes you suspend belief and stay engaged in her character’s crises and quest. Schreiber and Ejiofor are solid actors, but they stand in the shadow of this gusty actress who steals every scene.

Leave your disbelief, skepticism and discerning eye at the movie theater door. Just sit back and take this joyride, which will keep your blood rushing until Salt proves her innocence, or completes her deception.