Salt begins in a North Korean torture chamber, where Angelina Jolie can be found stripped to her undies, bloodied and beaten, a prisoner of Kim Jong Il's secret police. She is being worked over because they suspect she is a spy.

"I'm not who you think I am!" she insists, over and over, between the pummels.

And as it turns out, she is not who we think she is, either. Or maybe she is who we think she is: The filmmakers want us to believe Jolie's Evelyn Salt could be a deep-cover "sleeper agent" planted Stateside by the Russians many, many years ago - kind of like those folks the FBI just uncovered in North Jersey.

But how could Jolie, US Weekly icon and Vanity Fair cover girl, play a traitor, a rogue agent, a baddie?

The same way Matt Damon plays one in the Bourne pics, of course: on the run, fiercely focused, determined to clear his, or her, name.

And like Jason Bourne, Salt is CIA. She's trained in hand-to-hand combat, able to hurl herself atop speeding tractor-trailers, adept at rappelling down elevator shafts and using office furniture to construct improvised explosive devices.

Commendably swift and progressively inane, Salt has been directed by Phillip Noyce, whose Clear and Present Danger and Patriot Games tossed viewers into a similar world of high-tech intel, international intrigue, and running around whacking people on the head.

It's expeditious stuff: From the moment a Russian defector names Salt as the mole, Jolie is hoofing it - escaping a secure Washington interrogation facility, wreaking havoc on the Beltway, revving a (hijacked) motorcycle up the sidewalks, collecting sensible shoes from her apartment. And then she exits her building via a neighbor's window - floors above the street, her fingernails gripping the bricks as she sidles along a slim ledge.

Too lean, perhaps, but nonetheless arresting, Jolie jogs, jumps, kickboxes, head-butts, hurls grenades, and dons disguises as she makes for New York and - alarmingly - a hotel room across the street from a cathedral where funeral services for the vice president are being held. In attendance: the presidents of Russia and the United States. The defector had said Salt planned to kill the Russian head of state, and, seemingly, that's what she's here to do.

All the while Liev Schreiber, as her CIA boss, Ted, and Chiwetel Ejiofor, as the G-man Peabody, are trying to chase her down, barking stuff like "Get her records to my handheld!" and "There's trouble in the crypt!"

Needless to say, Agent Salt is several steps ahead of them, and also ahead of the army of CIA guys, Secret Service men, and New York cops in her way. She shoots, sucker punches, smokes, and chokes the lot of them - they may as well put up their hands, lie down, and cry "Uncle!"

Salt offers a sloppy concoction of story elements from '70s espionage classics - the sinister black ops of Three Days of the Condor, the nuclear dread of Fail-Safe, the political-assassination scenarios of The Day of the Jackal. And as in many of the Cold War classics, it's the Russians who are the villains again.

At their smartest, spy movies deliver thrills and suspense at the same time they address deeper issues about trust and betrayal, identity and deception (and self-identity, self-deception). Salt flirts with these notions, but with its nonsensical setups and wildly illogical twists (and some crazy Def-Con business in a White House bunker), Jolie's action vehicle is just that - an action vehicle, moving fast but thinking slow.EndText

Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/onmovies/.