Had "Salt" been released a month or so earlier, we might have laughed at this espionage-thriller's central notion: that Russian spies have been living among us, undetected, for years and possibly decades.
But in late June, the FBI arrested just such a ring that had been in existence since perhaps the 1990s. Not only that, these spies secretly called each other "comrade" and crowed over their villainy while hoisting bottles of vodka. Just kidding! That's what happens in "Salt." And that's one reason why this film, despite its excellent timing, still feels like a creaky relic from the Reagan-Gorbachev 1980s.
Angelina Jolie plays Evelyn Salt, a CIA agent who begins interrogating a Russian defector named Orlov (Daniel Olbrychski) but soon finds herself accused of double dealing. When she bolts from her office, Agent Peabody (Chiwetel Ejiofor) becomes convinced of her guilt; her boss, Ted Winter (Liev Schreiber), tries to defend her.
Though Jolie's role originally was written for a male (it nearly went to Tom Cruise), screenwriter Kurt Wimmer admirably makes few concessions to gender. Jolie dishes it out (her rampage through a boatful of thugs was filmed at the former Grumman plant in Bethpage) and also takes it like a man. When Salt gets water-tortured in her skivvies, director Phillip Noyce plays the scene for intensity, not titillation.
As "Salt" veers from the outlandish (brainwashed Russian children) to the mundane (nuclear launch codes), it ends up feeling mostly trite and crudely mechanical. The real-life Russian spies, the ones who seemed less concerned with assassination plots than with tending the hydrangeas and comparing middle schools, would make a much more compelling story.