It's true that Angelina Jolie's fugitive spy Evelyn Salt will remind you of Jason Bourne's sheer full-tilt physical courage and propensity to throw himself off high places. And if you caught the third installment, "The Bourne Ultimatum" (2007), you'll be able to see Salt's nighttime leap from the helicopter into an icy Potomac coming -- though "Salt" director Phillip Noyce doesn't repeat that mesmerizing shot from below Bourne's still body when, stunned and drifting, back-lit by some light far above, he suddenly jerks to life, making of New York City's freezing East River a place of re-birth for this man with no identity. What Salt won't remind you of is Tom Cruise, originally destined for the part.
Many readers know -- as I write this, "Salt" battles "Inception" for box-office first place -- that Evelyn Salt is a CIA operative whom a "walk-in" Russian defector named Orlov (Daniel Olbrychski) accuses, as she interrogates him, of being a Russian infiltrator set to assassinate Russia's current president when he gives the eulogy at the funeral of the US vice-president in Manhattan. The two men had engineered a major thaw between their nations. Orlov's claim turns on a decades-old, Cold War-era plot to train a vast, fanatic, unbreakable team of Russians from birth to pass as ordinary folk until "Day X." To leap ahead, the plan also involves hi-jacking the US nuclear codes to launch strikes on Tehran and Mecca so that Muslims will be provoked to finish destroying the US.
Well, Salt is a double agent, though what she'll do with that, and why, and what the set-up really is, provide the pull here. Jolie has said that re-writing the part for a woman was tricky. For example, this character wouldn't have a child because a mother wouldn't so endanger her child. But Salt has a husband, Mike (August Diehl), a spider researcher, a gentler, more retiring type than we expect for Joli's partner, so her fear is for his safety. All of Salt's relationships are with men -- except for the little girl who agrees to look after Salt's Toto-like dog when she first goes on the run -- and none of them is quite Atticus Finch, so next time I'd like another woman in the mix. The excellent actors Liev Schreiber and Chiwetel Ejiofor play, respectively, her laid-back superior Ted Winter and the more aggressive, suspicious counter-intelligence agent Peabody, who see-saw over how to contain her. Only once, as a last resort, does Salt use her feminine wiles and for a minute you're not sure she doesn't mean it.