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The ‘Bourne’ Substitute: ‘Salt’ an Unappetizing Mess

Nearly two decades after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Phillip Noyce (Patriot Games) and screenwriter Kurt Wimmer (Law Abiding Citizen) are still fighting the Cold War in Salt, unearthing a nest of Commie conspirators trying to trigger a nuclear showdown.
 
Why now? Why not? The movie, presumably set in the present day, offers no relevant political context for this latest incarnation of the Red Threat, nor does it seem curious about what motivates its various spies, assassins and rogue CIA spooks. It exists as a low-rent Bourne substitute, with Angelina Jolie, behind a stone-cold stare, playing both sides for fools.
 
Jolie is Evelyn Salt, a top operative trained in the unsubtle art of “lethal force,” whom we first encounter in a North Korean dungeon, denying her CIA connection as she’s beaten to a pulp. Two years later, she is happily married, still working for the government, but leaving the field for a desk job.
 
Her quest for the simple life is cut short when a Russian defector (Daniel Olbrychski), for reasons never made clear, fingers her as a double agent groomed to murder Russia’s president. The ensuing breakdown of Russo-American relations threatens to end in an exchange of missiles, and unreconstructed Cold Warriors get to dust off their pre-detente rhetoric.
 
Is Salt an undercover killer or an American hero falsely accused? Wherever her loyalties lie, she is a handsomely photographed plot device, the catalyst for a succession of car chases and shootouts as Wimmer’s story careens toward its preposterous climax.
 
To Jolie’s credit, she is a convincing action star – a fierce physical presence for whom combat comes more naturally than playing Martha Stewart. As Salt, she keeps us at a distance, revealing her gentler side only through the occasional throwaway gesture. Her ambiguity is by design. The character is an enigma, and Jolie appears to like it that way.
 
She can’t, however, take the movie’s reheated world tensions and make them seem fresh. Long after James Bond settled his score with the Russians, Salt picks up his fallen torch and wields it clumsily, as if history had stopped in the Sixties. Among the casualties of this silliness are Liev Schreiber, as her most faithful CIA comrade, the formidable Andre Braugher, seen in passing as a clueless Secretary of Defense.