On the far fringes of conspiracy-theory enthusiasts lurks a particular subset that even Art Bell used to have a hard time taking seriously: those who believe the greatest threat to the United States, freedom, democracy, and all that’s good in the world remains the Soviet Union. Salt could have been made specifically for them. Directed by Phillip Noyce from a script by Kurt Wimmer, Salt stars Angelina Jolie as a CIA operative whose already-dangerous life takes a peculiar turn when a man claiming to be a Russian defector (Daniel Olbrychski) walks into her office building with a story about a society of genetically selected deep-cover operatives trained from birth by the KGB to plot the overthrow of the United States. The twist of the tale: He claims Jolie is one of them. Fearing repercussions of this allegation and seeking to secure her husband’s safety, Jolie goes on the lam. Or maybe she has other motives for running. Was the Russian telling the truth?
For much of its running time, Salt effectively, though not particularly intelligently, teases the audience with slivers of Jolie’s past. But intelligence isn’t really the point. Noyce’s past excursions into action filmmaking, most notably the Harrison Ford-as-Jack Ryan films, have been a bit flavorless, but here he delivers one from the gut. Borrowing a page from the North By Northwest playbook, Salt is essentially one endless chase scene, one that doesn’t let up and that refreshingly relies far more heavily on real-world stunt work than obvious CGI assistance. Metal twists, flames crackle, and it all feels disarmingly tangible. (Distinctive work from cinematographer Robert Elswit helps as well.)
The story? Well, it begins ludicrously, then plunges deeper into insanity with each new turn. Jolie’s commanding presence mostly helps keep laughs at bay—her slightly inhuman glamour works in her favor here—but Salt’s mechanical command of action is what makes it one of the most entertaining films of a summer thin on its once-abundant variety of cheap thrills. Its old-fashioned, over-the-top appeal doesn’t end with its hammer-and-sickle bad guys.