** SPOILERS **
Anyone who knows me has heard me lament how much I miss the Cold War. Not in real life so much, but at the movies. I grew up on a steady diet of James Bond foiling Russian plans to destroy the West, Rocky Balboa going 15 rounds with Ivan Drago in Moscow, and the Red October being hijacked by its defector captain with the Scottish accent Sean Connery. One of the great pleasures of Salt is that the Russians are back with a vengeance as The Bad Guys. What's more, instead of a suave British secret agent or even an American spy, the only person standing between evil Russians and worldwide Armageddon is a Russian-born double agent working for the CIA, Evelyn Salt, played by a totally gung ho Angelina Jolie.
Salt mines just about all the tried and true tropes of secret agent action movies. The story is utterly preposterous, unbelievable, and makes no rational sense, but apply secret agent action movie logic and it makes a tremendous amount of sense: We first meet Evelyn Salt as a POW in a North Korean gulag (no horrible Madonna music while she's tortured - that's one up Salt has on Mr. Bond). Salt insists over and over she's not a spy, but she is. She's rescued by the CIA via the efforts of her husband August Diehl, a German-born archanologist and the only man who loves her regardless of who or what she is. Salt's devotion to her husband is the reason behind virtually everything she does for the rest of the movie.
One day, an old Soviet spy walks into CIA headquarters with a wild knee-slapper of a story about Russian sleeper assassins trained from childhood to infiltrate the United States. (A backstory strikingly reminiscent of Project Manticore in James Cameron's TV series Dark Angel, only without the sci-fi elements that made Jessica Alba a transgenic super soldier.) One of these Russian assassins in particular was extra special - the daughter born to Russia's champion wrestler and its greatest chess player. This child had such exceptional parentage that she was stolen as a baby to be raised with a special mission: she would live in deep cover in the US and ultimately murder the President of Russia before triggering nuclear war. This assassin who will kill the Russian President is named Evelyn Salt.
So of course Salt runs. To do what? Clear her name? Save her husband? Stop the evil plan? Or actually kill the Russian President? The audience must play a guessing game throughout Salt, trying to reason out what Salt is actually doing, who she is, and what she really wants. The sheer movie star charisma of Angelina Jolie and the empathy she creates holds the audience's favor towards Evelyn Salt, even in moments where she seems to be the bad guy she's accused of being, especially when she seemingly makes good on assassinating the Russian President and then reunites with Orlov and her childhood "family". A minted A-list action heroine from her turns in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Mr. And Mrs. Smith, and Wanted, Jolie dives headlong into all the physicality Salt requires of her. She flashes her radiant smile at key moments, sometimes genuinely, but more often strategically before she strikes, be it with guns, grenades, her own fists, or a homemade rocket launcher.
Salt's absurdities would be maddening in lesser hands, but director Phillip Noyce and his filmmaking team deliver one blisteringly entertaining action sequence after another, putting Salt through the wringer as she outwits, outruns, and outfights all of the federal agents under the command of Mr. Peabody (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Salt's CIA boss Ted Winter (Liev Schreiber). Salt evades capture in Washington in a thrilling chase by vaulting herself off of freeway ramps from one semi-truck to another, but that's nothing compared to the gambit she pulls in New York City to "assassinate" the Russian President in a way no Secret Service protocol could ever anticipate. Salt even dips into Ethan Hunt's bag of tricks with prosthetic faces. Salt's execution of the real villain is one of the coolest kill scenes I've ever seen, with an incredible lingering shot of Jolie really performing the stunt. No matter what anyone tries, they just can't lick Salt.
The third act reveal of who else is a Russian double agent trying to murder the President and launch nukes at the Middle East (to piss them off and make them destroy America) is satisfying, but the final scenes between Salt and Mr. Peabody take the cake. Somehow, Ejiofor sells one of the screwiest Trademark Changes of Heart ever when he decides to believe that there are more Russian sleepers hiding out there and the only one who can stop them all is Evelyn Salt. Salt doesn't even get a chance to thank Mr. Peabody for setting her free to kick ass in a sequel, but Mr. Peabody getting to be in such a sequel ought to be thanks enough. One can't help but imagine Jason Bourne watching Salt and shaking his head aghast at the impossible scrapes Salt manages to overcome. Why, watching Salt, Bourne might even fall in love.