"Salt" is a very silly movie, and by the end of its brisk and breathless running time (and I mean that literally), it makes the "Bourne" movies look like documentaries.

I'm not entirely sure that's a bad thing.

Angelina Jolie is, in my opinion, a casting problem in anything at this point, and it's simply a side effect of her megafame.  She projects such a powerful, fully-formed persona that it is difficult to accept her vanishing into a role.  She's a talented actress, she works hard in her films, and I feel like no one could ask more of her than she already gives for her movies... but that hesitation on my part remains.  You watch her onscreen, and it's Angelina Jolie, no matter what.

Part of it is the way she looks, sure.  She's a cartoon, a comic-book artist's idea of the dangerous bad girl.  Because she is so visually extreme, I don't buy her as, say, a spy or someone who is meant to be anonymous or adaptable.  I still think the notion of the "little grey man" is the most potent notion of who a spy should be, someone you wouldn't look at twice.  No matter if she's wearing long blonde hair or a dyed Morticia Addams do, Jolie stands out in any crowd.

But part of it is that there is some part of her as a performer that feels unbending, like she can't submerge her own personality enough anymore to convince as someone else.  That actually serves "Salt" to some degree, because the character she plays, Evelyn Salt, is living several different roles at once, with a central core that remains unchanged no matter what situation she's in.  That's a gift in the film's opening moments, where we see her in North Korea.  She's been captured, and she's being tortured in an effort to convince her to confess that she's working as a spy.  She keeps denying it, over and over, her cries becoming more pathetic as the main title is revealed and we cut forward in time to her release.  She's being traded for a North Korean who ended up in the hands of America, at the insistence of her boyfriend Mike (August Diehl), who has no idea what she does for a living.

Two years later, Salt is back at work in the US as part of a CIA cover corporation, hoping to move over to a desk job, getting ready to celebrate her wedding anniversary to Mike, and at the end of a long day, she's about to walk out of the office with her boss, Ted (Liev Schreiber), when a defector walks in and needs to be debriefed.  What starts as an inconvenience turns Salt's entire life upside down when the defector, a mysterious Russian named Orlov (Daniel Olbrychski), accuses her of being a sleeper agent, planted in the United States as a child to eventually fulfill some part in bringing down the country completely.

Desperate to find her husband and prove she isn't the sleeper agent, Salt goes on the run... and that's pretty much the entire rest of the movie.  Salt runs, things are revealed, lots of people die, and a sequel is set up with almost naked contempt for the audience.  And as the film accelerates, it gets more and more absurd until it reaches a climax in a White House-bound set piece that is impossible on almost every level and deranged in conception.  Philip Noyce is one of those action filmmakers who's been doing it for so long that it almost feels second-nature now.  He's got a clean action style, and there are some really exciting sequences in the movie.  Noyce seems to me to be one of those directors who doesn't really care about coherence in his screenplays.  He's set-piece driven, and he has gotten great at building an individual sequence.  Stuart Baird and John Gilroy share credit on this one as editors, and it's an interesting collision.  I think of Gilroy's work on films like "Michael Clayton" or "Narc," and I think of movies that have fractured timelines and a fluid sense of mise en scene.  Baird is a guy who studios turn to as a closer on big action movies.  Both of their skill sets are on display in this one, and the film has a relentless pulse that is well-punctuated by a few key flashes of memory to pin down the truth of Evelyn Salt's identity.

Liev Schreiber remains one of my favorite character actors working, a guy who can play completely unctuous or incredibly likable, all a matter of degrees, and he calls on a pretty full range of what he's able to do in this film.  Chiwetel Ejiofer is another of the best guys working right now, and he's basically playing Tommy Lee Jones in "The Fugitive" in this one, the guy who is pursuing but who starts to believe he may be on the wrong trail.  They're pretty much the whole show aside from Jolie, and Noyce got lucky with the combination of the two.  They're so good that they almost convince you as you watch that the film adds up or has some emotional heft to it.

In the end, though, it's a Teflon "Bourne" rip-off, an excuse to let Angelina run and punch and grunt and shoot and ride motorcycles and jump some more and all of it to very little end.  It's odd that Tom Cruise left this film to go make "Knight and Day" instead.  There's no real difference between the two aside from tone.  They are both wildly implausible and not interested in being plausible, they both feature nearly robotic superhero leads who are somehow supposed to be "real" simply because they don't wear capes, and both films feature busy, mechanical plots that seem unimportant except as an excuse to string together big moments.  "Salt" will most likely not disappoint the eager audiences that see it opening weekend, but I can't honestly say I care one way or another if they ever make another one.

Salt may need to keep running, but I don't think I need to keep watching.

"Salt" opens in theaters everywhere this Friday.

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