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Jolie Is Spice of 'Salt'
Kathleen Murphy, Special to MSN Movies

"Dream a little dream with me." Really, isn't that every movie's invitation? Even in our numbed-up, media-saturated state, most of us still feel that tickle of anticipation when we go into the dark: What new world will we visit? What magic will we see? Will we be carried away from our everyday into something more resplendent than reality to ... dare I say it? ... some transformative truth?

A movie like "Inception" invites you to feel smart about celluloid dreams, by pretending to go deep while fishing in the shallows. In contrast, "Salt," Angelina Jolie's latest flight into fantasy, never promises that running the maze, riding the roller coaster, will be anything more than a mindless, hyperkinetic gas. It's practically a template for the one and only dream-machine Hollywood's making these days. The story is preposterous, there isn't an ounce of sense in the whole enterprise -- just an evening's outing on a bullet train in the sexy company of Wonder Woman.

Tom Cruise once eyed "Salt" (then titled "Edwin A. Salt") as a possible showcase for his particular brand of muscular heroics. He opted instead for "Knight and Day," that easygoing, over-CGI'd romp about a wrongly accused spy. Sound familiar? "K&D" derived much of its fizz from Cameron Diaz, who occasionally juiced her co-star out of Cruise-control.

So the CIA super-star fingered as a sleeper spy by a Russian defector (Daniel Olbrychski) is, happily, Lara Croft, not Ethan Hunt. Within minutes of the out-of-the-blue accusation, the improbably blond-tressed Salt goes rogue -- to prove her innocence or to follow those buried orders to assassinate heads of state? We are encouraged, but never really persuaded, to wonder. What follows are chases (smartly choreographed without overreliance on CGI), punctuated by brief time-outs. This is "Salt's" uncomplicated but craftily manipulated rhythm, the beat to which the elegantly long-limbed actress moves with fierce, single-minded ease.

You might say director Phillip Noyce, who made a young Jolie shine in "The Bone Collector" (1999), has turned "Salt" into a movie about being a movie star, about gorgeous Angelina Jolie dressing up and down, working up a sweat, displaying her exotic self for our voyeuristic pleasure. Jolie's our dreamgirl, the distaff version of "Inception's" Leo DiCaprio. "Salt" opens with a taste of torture-porn: North Korean sadists pouring water down the nearly naked lady's throat. (Seems odd, with the splendor of Jolie's writhing body laid out before them, that her throat would hold such allure -- but maybe I've got "Eyes Wide Shut" on my mind.)

But the scene's meant to prove this Amazon can take any punishment the movie's men can dish out -- and believe me, the physical abuse visited upon her is the stuff of comic books (WHAM! POW! CRUNCH!) or dreams. Lots of males get offed in "Salt," but it's the woman on the run whose body bleeds, bruises, absorbs blows ... extravagantly. Talk about your sado-erotic fantasy -- Jolie not only runs the maze of a low-grade generic thriller, but a movie-made gauntlet, her inhuman beauty endlessly ruined and perfectly restored. (At one point, our Manchurian Candidate is even stripped of her gender, transformed into a perversely unattractive male.)

When blond Salt goes dark, it's not just a matter of dyeing her hair. Undercover, the star becomes even more of a fantasy figure, a little bit Natasha of Bullwinkle fame, a little bit Morticia Addams, a little bit Bettie Page, with a soupçon of gaunt-cheeked fashion mannequin thrown in for good measure. That this dreamboat could stand in a subway or move through a crowd without causing anyone's head to turn -- or explode -- is part of the unapologetic nutsiness of "Salt's" anti-reality.

Walking away from yet another over-the-top pursuit, our bat out of hell casually boosts a fur hat -- and moments later, Salt's swathed in a Vogue-style outfit trimmed in the same fur, action figure become high-fashion model. How? Irrelevant; it's magic. Not much later, Jolie regally walks a runway -- on a derelict East River barge -- in slow motion, gracefully lofting grenades left and right, death with a Mona Lisa smile.

I can't think of another actress who could drive, with such authority and credibility, an engineless vehicle like "Salt." Arrant nonsense, with little organic mystery or sense of danger, the film is totally jacked into Jolie. (Even the movie's much-touted "twist" is telegraphed from the get-go.) While excellent actors Liev Schreiber and Chiwetel Ejiofor are consigned to standing around with their minions watching Lady Rambo's depredations, Jolie plays the hell out of her action persona, so that we can't help but buy into her single-minded resourcefulness, her absolute fearlessness. The film's aptly named: without her Salt, it would have no flavor at all.

Kathleen Murphy currently reviews films for Seattle's Queen Anne News and writes essays on film for Steadycam magazine. A frequent speaker on film, Murphy has contributed numerous essays to magazines (Film Comment, the Village Voice, Film West, Newsweek-Japan), books ("Best American Movie Writing of 1998," "Women and Cinema," "The Myth of the West") and Web sites (Amazon.com, Cinemania.com, Reel.com). Once upon a time, in another life, she wrote speeches for Bill Clinton, Jack Lemmon, Harrison Ford, Joe Pesci, Robert De Niro, Art Garfunkel and Diana Ross.

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