The prototypical action star calls to mind big muscles and a battle with English vocabulary almost as epic as the one he fights with his archenemy. He only grunts and his brow ridge could shelter a large Vietnamese family. Angelina Jolie (“Wanted”) does not fit this bill — she’s beautiful, she’s elegant and, lest we forget, she’s a woman.

“Salt”

At Quality 16 and Rave
Columbia

As the titular CIA operative in “Salt,” Jolie doesn’t rewrite the code of the action movie. She fills in like any male actor, and it’s a performance more empowering than any ham-fisted Action Babe character could deliver. And though the film toils in generic, bombastic irrelevance, Jolie’s performance is on equal ground with even the beefiest of pectorals.

“Salt” is Jolie’s CIA field agent Evelyn Salt, whom we meet at the end of a long workday awaiting her anniversary dinner with husband and total loser Mike (August Diehl, “Inglourious Basterds”), allegedly the world’s foremost arachnologist and facial hair magician. You might think that a man who can make his beard appear and disappear would put that talent to better use than spider research, but then again Mike is rather dumb. Around closing time, the CIA gets a walk-in defector from Russia who says Salt is a Russian spy trained by the KGB from birth to infiltrate the American intelligence community. Presumably against her better judgment, Salt splits and goes on the lam. Before all is said and done, dozens of necks are broken, people explode, one guy gets paralyzed by spider venom, we’re on the brink of global nuclear warfare and Mike’s stupid beard keeps coming and going.

A film this patently silly desperately needs a sense of humor; unfortunately, “Salt” forgoes it entirely for a false sense of worldly importance. International diplomacy is serious business, and if maintaining it means killing lots of uniformed dudes, well, there’s nothing to smile about, mister. People are dying out there — people whose names you’ll never know and whose faces you’ll barely see and whose Vaudevillian accents belie their true nefarious colors.

Director Phillip Noyce is best known for his Jack Ryan political thrillers “Patriot Games” and “Clear and Present Danger.” Besides their protagonist, the two films share in common a lot of exposition, steady camerawork and early 1990s release dates. So while his experience in chasing diplomatic intrigue remains stable, Noyce is, sadly, old. And his movie reflects his age. Every chase, every fistfight, every set piece, every line of dialogue is so familiar and so reheated that the film feels like it was constructed entirely from chunks of other, better action films that already exist. The trick where villains greet each other in a foreign language but find an excuse to hold their conversation in English, for example, is scattered all throughout “Salt.” But Jolie does her best to salvage some ingenuity.

Where the film shines is in Salt’s martial prowess. It does a great service to Jolie’s credibility and indeed the credibility of heroines in general that not one quip about Salt’s sex is uttered. Never does Salt feel a sudden urge to take a long steamy shower, nor does she seduce a clueless security guard for the keys to his handcuffs. She can kill people, evade capture and leap between moving vehicles like any James Bond or Jason Bourne. She bleeds all over the place and gets punched in the face. She is an action hero, not a heroine. No stuffy male superior chastises his emasculated underlings for failing to catch “a girl.” It’s much more respectful than the alternatives and deserves a lot of credit.

The title role was originally written for Tom Cruise, who agreed to star in the film but backed out after finding the character too similar to his previous stint as Ethan Hunt in the “Mission: Impossible” series. It’s a miracle he abandoned the project; without Jolie as Salt, the film would be a chemically precise feat of sheer boredom.

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