July 23, 2010 at 1:00 am

Tom Long Film Review: 'Salt' -- GRADE: B+

Review: Angelina Jolie proves she's super-action hero material in 'Salt'

Angelina Jolie stars as Evelyn Salt, who shines as a CIA agent -- or is she a Russian spy? (Andrew Schwartz / SMPSP)

'Salt" is a smart, fast, breathless blast of a spy flick that emulates the "Bourne" films in all the right ways.

Conflicted spy with identity issues? Check. Government mind control? Check. Smash-bash car chases, sudden revelations, bureaucratic corruption, high-rise hijinks? It's all here.

The big difference, of course, is that "Salt" stars Angelina Jolie, who, thankfully, bears no resemblance to Matt Damon, and who brings a sense of sultry self-assurance to her super-spy. She's not confused, she's mad.

This film likely marks Jolie's ascendance to the top rung of Hollywood action heroes, and this is probably the first time a woman has ever been up there. Heaven knows that with "Wanted," "Mr. & Mrs. Smith" and now this, she's earned it.

Jolie brings a primal physicality to the genre -- you thoroughly believe she's clinging barefoot to the side of a skyscraper -- mixed with finely tuned acting skills. She exudes power and presence. And yes, being able to act does help in these kinds of movies, despite the Schwarzeneggers of yore.

Jolie plays Evelyn Salt, a top operative working for the CIA, specializing in Russian affairs. One afternoon, a defecting KGB spy (Daniel Olbrychski) drops in and tells the CIA officers gathered, Salt among them, that he knows of a deep-cover KGB agent in America who is going to assassinate the Russian president when he comes to New York.

That agent's name, the defector says, is Evelyn Salt.

Salt, of course, denies any such thing, and immediately becomes concerned that someone is going to harm her scientist husband (August Diehl). But her superiors at the CIA (Liev Schreiber, Chiwetel Ejiofor) want to interrogate her immediately.

Forget that, she says. So she breaks out of headquarters, and the chase begins.

Director Phillip Noyce is an old hand at spy movies (he made both "Patriot Games" and "Clear and Present Danger" in the '90s), but here he steps up his rhythms (again, likely inspired or prodded by the "Bourne" films). The action sequences are elaborate, but not overlong, and the pauses in between offer just enough context and logic.

"Salt" has more than its fair share of surprise twists; and in truth most of them aren't all that surprising, but they are logical and well-prepared and thus effective. The biggest bang comes just before the end, with Jolie pulling off a great guts-out acrobatic assassination. Nice.

With a run time of 100 minutes, "Salt" doesn't overplay its hand or overstay its welcome. It comes running right at you, slaps you around a bit, and then keeps running (by the way, Angie's grunts and moans as she runs are darling; it's the little things that give a character life).

The film ends with sequel written all over it, and as sequels go, we could do a lot worse. Strange as it sounds, "Salt" is sweet.

tlong@detnews.com">tlong@detnews.com (313) 222-8879

Director Phillip Noyce (Andrew Schwartz / SMPSP)
More Tom Long