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Cinema Signal: High action without pause makes this a thriller to root for.

Original Sin
With Antonio Banderas and Angelina Jolie
(Discounted DVD from Amazon)
. "Salt"

This espionage thriller is a wild, high octane ride in more ways than one. Making the metaphor solid is the freeway pace, the desperate moves (and stunts), a plotline that supports dizzying action and motivations designed to keep us guessing without pause until the final gasp. No room here for the unfit.

The character build-up of CIA agent Evelyn Salt (Angelina Jolie) starts at the first frame when she cries out in a repeated mantra, "I'm not a spy," whilst enduring torture and degradation at the hands of her North Koreans captors who show no mercy.

The propulsion of the drama begins when Russian defector Vassily Orlov (Daniel Olbrychski, "Break Point") walks into CIA headquarters with a desire to spill some intel. Russian expert Salt, in crisp official attire after having been rescued in a spy exchange thanks to the political efforts of Mike Krause (August Diehl), a great admirers of hers, is chosen to interview the stolid old warrior.

Salt is in a hurry--she has a plane to catch. The visible signs of the ordeal she suffered are not-quite-healed cuts and abrasions on her face. Orlov assumes his own methodical pace as he discusses connections between field agents, leading to the startling conclusion that she, Salt, is a double agent working for the Russians.

Her agency colleagues, watching and listening from outside the interview room, freeze upon taking in this little tidbit from their walk-in defector. Agent Ted Winter (Liev Schreiber, "X-Men Origins: Wolverine") and, particularly agent Peabody (Chiwetel Ejiofor, "2012") turn into high security mode, which involves detaining Salt for questioning and deep research. Immediately. The charge may be stupefying, but these are lads who are familiar with the concept of a "mole" and what it could mean to the country and the agency.

Her own actions from that moment on would suggest that Orlov's charge is true. She runs. The full resources of the agency are brought in as she negotiates the corridors of the building, the streets, parking lots and crisscrossing freeways. When she's finally surrounded on a bridge, she yells that she can't be taken because of a dire need to get to Mike, now her boyfriend and deep love, who isn't answering his phone and may be in great danger.

But her insistence on this as a motive for her run, which has turned more and more desperate (and exciting) with the addition of more and more agents chasing her, bears a faint echo of her insistence to the North Koreans that she's not a spy. Do we, by now, trust her integrity? Agent Winter is inclined to give her the benefit of some doubt while agent Peabody is inflexible in demanding her capture at any cost. Have they not witnessed the extent of her daring and skills to elude the men and surveillance assets of the whole agency? Well, actually, they ain't seen nothing yet.

The pursuit makes for a non-stop action thriller up there with director Philip Noyce's "Clear and Present Danger," "The Bone Collector" and "Patriot Games." In fact, along with the collaboration of screenwriter Kurt Wimmer ("The Thomas Crown Affair," "Law Abiding Citizen"), he's outdone himself. And, so has his star.

One thing that isn't a secret about this spy drama, having been divulged by the entertainment press, is that Jolie's role was originally written for Tom Cruise. If you hadn't read it, you might pick it up from the design and staging of the close combat sequences. Jolie puts every muscle in her body into making the fight concepts of the film credible, and she's well aided with sharp editing and sound effects. With this material, director and opportunity, she exceeds even the athletic requirements of her "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider" series. The babe is terrific. But, she isn't Matt Damon.

The piece is put together entirely professionally, from sets that had to have involved extreme physical and safety challenges to the exceptionally fine lighting of cinematographer Robert Elswit in the dank recesses of a Russian hideout to the slick, high tech warren of cells and corridors of agency structures. James Newton Howard's score is on a proper heartbeat with the urgency of the events and scores with considerable musical inventiveness.

The only problem is the close combat and the level of violence. While the dynamo that is double agent Salt, on the run from trained, fit men with automatic weapons, size and weight, the credibility of her ability to subdue them rests on the fantasy that her speed gives her the superiority her gender doesn't. She does what the explosive action of the script calls for, but... well, it doesn't, quite. If you're being objective, you can't skate from gender reality.

But, does it matter? In the Jason Bourne series, ("The Bourne Identity") which this film clearly aspires to, the FBI agent's physical makeup and obvious training (in the personna of Matt Damon) generated no doubts about his ability to better his well-trained enemy when a lesser man might be overpowered.

As wonderfully adept as Jolie is, and as well suited to action roles as she's proven herself to be, such moves as head butting a bruiser sitting next to her in the back seat of a car without winding up on a gurney is, well, a rather doubtful moment.

But, do not get me wrong. There is so much exciting stunt work and visceral connection going on in this movie that the gender limitation recedes in importance if you allow it to. This is terrific movie making with, at 100 minutes, not one of them wasted. The high-paced action doesn't pause for breath as it delivers juicy espionage, mystery and superb entertainment.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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Angelina Jolie as CIA agent Evelyn Salt
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