Directed by Phillip Noyce
Written by Kurt Wimmer
Starring Angelina Jolie, Liev Schreiber, Chewitel Ejiofor

Between The A-Team, The Karate Kid and Predators the summer of 2010 has been looking a whole lot like the summer of 1988.  And here’s one more ‘80s throwback for you, Salt, a new thriller about a squad of Soviet spies who launch a mission to destroy America from within.

Although it’s not based on an existing Me Generation franchise, the film plays like a mash-up of such latter-day Cold War relics as Red Dawn (which itself was recently re-made), Red Heat and Russkies.  Written by Kurt Wimmer, the man responsible for such entertaining (if derivative and messy) genre flicks as Ultraviolet and Equilibrium, the movie stars Angelina Jolie as a CIA agent who is outed as a possible Soviet operative and then forced to go on the run in order to prevent (or is that complete?) a top-secret mission: assassinating the President of Russia during his visit to New York City.

That’s a great premise for a taut, tense action film and that’s what Salt is for the first hour or so.  Unfortunately, Wimmer can’t resist adding a few absurdist touches to the proceedings that ultimately come back to bite the film in the end.  It’s revealed early on that Salt may have been part of a top-secret program financed by a wealthy Soviet patriot wherein exceptional youngsters were taken from their parents and raised to be sleeper agents living and working within the American government.  Then, when the time was right, they’d turn on their adopted homeland and launch a war that would bring the U.S. to its knees.  I was willing to accept this plot point—after all, it’s not any more outlandish than the takeover scheme at the center of The Manchurian Candidate—until we got the first flashback to the orphanage/super-spy training academy where these operatives were raised.  Shot using lots of extreme Dutch angles and overexposed cinematography, these sequences are deliberately cartoonish, a creative choice that short-circuits whatever modest attempts at realism director Phillip Noyce strives for in the establishing scenes.

Things grow more preposterous—both visually and plot-wise—in the movie’s second half, which finds the titular heroine engaging in super-heroic stunts that even Batman would think twice about before attempting.  Whether hopscotching down an elevator shaft or leaping out of a helicopter into the Potomac River while still in handcuffs, Salt seems to be auditioning for her own Marvel Comics title.  Meanwhile, Wimmer’s script dives off the deep end, constantly increasing the size of the secret Soviet army that Salt works for (and against) and building to an unlikely climax that sends her into a bunker in the bowels of the White House where a ticking clock counts down the minutes until America launches a full-on nuclear strike against the Middle East.

At least Salt seems aware of its own silliness, but that’s actually part of the problem—the movie thinks it’s more fun than it actually is.  Perhaps another director, like say J.J. Abrams (whose late, great spy series Alias is an obvious reference point for Salt) would have figured out how to give the film the playful tone it desperately needs to make the script’s many implausibilities not only entertaining, but even kinda sorta plausible.  Too bad that Noyce—an old-school action shooter best known for straightforward fight-and-chase films like Patriot Games—doesn’t do playful.  When he tries to be funny, the results are scenes like those aforementioned flashbacks, which inspire groans rather than sly chuckles.  He’s also better off when the action is more down-to-earth; Salt’s initial escape from CIA headquarters is well-staged as is the Beltway chase.  When she’s bouncing off the walls of that elevator shaft like Spider-Man though (a scene that’s also marred by some distractingly shoddy digital-enhancements), Noyce can’t find a way to shoot it that doesn’t make it look ridiculous.

If the director seems unsure how to approach the screenplay’s comic edge, his star handles it by essentially ignoring it altogether.  A skilled dramatic actress and a charismatic action heroine, Jolie has never demonstrated a strong aptitude for comedy (a handful of scenes in Mr. and Mrs. Smith notwithstanding) and she wisely chooses to play this role straight, in much the same way that Jennifer Garner opted to remain the calm at the center of the crazy, convoluted storm that was Alias.  Jolie’s physicality is one of her chief strengths as a performer and that’s on full display here; even when Salt isn’t in action mode, she’s always moving—pacing a room, scanning her surroundings, assessing the situation—fully aware that if she stays still even for a second, she’ll be caught.  It’s an extremely well-calibrated performance, the kind of which is rarely celebrated because it’s in service of an action movie rather than a high-minded drama.  Jolie is by far the best thing about Salt, but the movie also benefits from a sly supporting turn by Liev Schreiber, who plays Salt’s colleague at the CIA.   As written, it’s a thankless role, but the actor wrings several (intentional) laughs and moments of actual drama out of the script.  (Poor Chewitel Ejiofor, on the other hand, is trapped in the role of the government heavy that’s always one step behind Salt and spends much of the movie looking miserable. )  The film’s final moments are a naked bid for a sequel and I for one would have no objection to seeing Jolie back in action for More Salt.  Next time around though, Salt should be dispatched on an assignment that’s more Mission: Impossible than Mission: Implausible.

Salt opens in theaters tomorrow.