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Spy Swap 

Salt trades coherence for wicked fun. A deal we endorse.

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I had to snort with something like derision when I heard the premise: “Angelina Jolie is a Russian spy! Or maybe not!” Russian spies? What is this, 1982? Is this a missing James Bond movie? I know Hollywood is creatively bankrupt, but c’mon: Dredging up 20-years-gone Cold War paranoia has gotta be a new low for the industry, hasn’t it?

But Salt works. As in breathless, nonstop action-intensity works. Oh, sure, it’s nutty-as-a-fruitcake insane at the same time, but being this hugely entertaining goes a long way toward making you not want to laugh at it. Well, OK, honestly, I did laugh a few times: more than once at discovering that I’d actually been holding my breath awaiting the outcome of the crazy intense running around and shooting onscreen, and more than once at the plot shenanigans. Because, really, was that supposed to be a surprise? Some stuff you can see coming from... well, I won’t say, so as not to spoil. The movie is spoilerish enough on its own.

Still, I haven’t had this much pure dumb fun at the movies this summer. The “they’re flying a tank” scene in The A-Team came closest, but that was just one scene. Salt is a whole movie of “they’re flying a tank” scenes.

It’s like this. Jolie is Evelyn Salt, who works for an oil company that is actually a front for the CIA: she’s a specialist in intelligence about Russia. And then in walks a defector one afternoon to announce that Evelyn Salt is, in fact, a spy for the Russians, a double agent. Oh, yeah, and there’s also a plot about to be put into motion that will destroy America, and it will begin with the assassination of the Russian president — yes, the Russian president — by a Russian operative in New York City.

And that ain’t the half of the crazy.

The defector tells a tale that is a conspiracy theorist’s wet dream about changeling baby spies, Russian kids raised in the 1970s to infiltrate American society … and now who can tell how many of them are in positions to do America harm? Like, maybe, CIA agent Evelyn Salt.

Now Salt is on the run, heading to New York from Washington, D.C., with her colleagues — including her close pal Liev Schreiber and pain-in-the-ass-from-a-rival-agency Chiwetel Ejiofor — on her tail. Is she going to kill the Russian president? Is she going to stop the assassination? We simply have no idea what to believe about her for a very long time, and it’s downright thrilling to be kept on edge like this (especially in a film that is, it must be said, a clear heir to a long line of similar films). Salt recalls director Phillip Noyce’s Jack Ryan flicks, Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger; tons of exciting violence (car crashes and foot chases and explosions and shootouts and more than a little fisticuffery), a bit of MacGyver-esque cleverness, and a dollop of political and personal intrigue.

At barely 90 minutes, Salt feels both long (for all the wonderful cheese and action that’s crammed in here) and short (it flies by so breezily). By the time it’s done, Salt has opened up its little universe so cleverly that it feels like a superhero — or supervillain — origin story, one begging for a sequel so we can come back and play in its world some more.

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