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“Salt” mines the ideas of better espionage thrillers.


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“If she tries anything here it would have to be pretty amazing.” Would it? So says the Secret Service man (Chiwetel Ejiofor) to the CIA operative (Liev Schreiber) in “Salt,” starring Angelina Jolie as the titular, lethal intelligence operative on the run. It's fairly obvious these two men are boasting not for their own benefit, but for ours. They are talking about fellow agent-mole-Russian spy-traitor-whateversheis Evelyn Salt (Jolie), whose mission, to assassinate a head of state — or to save him, nobody's sure — they are trying to thwart by sealing off every imaginable perimeter.

Of course Salt thinks of one they didn't imagine, but you sort of expect that. Up to this point, she has created a homemade bazooka, scurried along the outside of at least two tall buildings, extracted venom from a rare spider, made highway leaps to the backs of two speeding trucks, dived from a moving subway car, rescued her own dog and used her underwear as counter espionage. And it's still fairly early in the movie.

One internet commenter labeled “Salt” “Bourne on crack,” and though he or she seemed to mean it as a compliment, it's an apt phrase for a variety of reasons. The characters and action are certainly similar to “The Bourne Identity.” Like Jason Bourne, Salt is on the run after coming under suspicion of being a rogue agent. Being on the run in a movie like this means a lot of chase scenes, shootouts and hand-to-hand combat. Doing so requires an expertise in anything that comes up. Along the way the resemblances tend to become contrasts.

Many of the spy movie clichAcs — the high-speed pursuits, the fisticuffs, the cloak-and-dagger gamesmanship — were redefined and reimagined in the “Bourne” movies. They were more realistic, amped up and set in motion by a unique and compelling story. There was a reason Bourne seemed to be able to do anything, and better than anyone. And we learned that reason as the character did.

“Salt” isn't that original, and it shows. We don't learn much at all, and neither does the character. She simply does amazing physical feats and thinks of unusual solutions. The most likely reason we can discern is that writer Kurt Wimmer or director Phillip Noyce saw it in another movie. It seems not to matter to them that many of the well-known ideas they borrow have since been parodied, as recently as the Tom Cruise vehicle “Knight and Day,” which has a similar plot.

The movie's premise is absurd, a concoction of Cold War and terrorism paranoia that puts Salt in the middle of an old Soviet spy program designed to plant child sleeper agents in the United States. Part of their training, we are shown, included episodes of “The Brady Bunch.” Seriously.

The unit was developed by a diabolical Russian named Orlov (played by Daniel Olbrychski and Daniel Pearce), who walks into CIA headquarters at the beginning of the movie with his information about Salt's being a Russian agent. Why he does this and how it is supposed to make his plan easier is not an enigma you'll be likely to solve.

“Salt” is less a puzzle of obstacles and exploits than a series of contrivances to get the heroine to engage in crazy stunts and fire a lot of bullets. So far, even most of the critics who have panned the film overall have been steadfast in their praise of Jolie, but this is difficult to understand except as a form of sycophancy. The movie contains no memorable dialogue (“Utilitarianism is the new sexy” notwithstanding) and there is no real nemesis for Jolie to flex against. The stunts are pedestrian, seen-it-before stuff. Supposedly Jolie performed a lot of them on her own, but that may have been a mistake. To be honest, she isn't even very convincing at running fast.

Jolie has always been more of a star than a great actress, but this time she is especially vacant in a role that requires little more than distant, determined gazes and some spectacularly laughable disguises (at one point she looks like John Oates). The Hollywood marketing machine has become extremely adept at getting inside people's heads and making them believe what they want them to believe. Its latest franchise may be advertised as a smart and slick thriller, but it's really just another clunky thrill ride. (R) 109 min.



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