(CNN) -- You will need more than a pinch of salt to swallow the incredible twists and turns of Angelina Jolie's new spy thriller, but it's a kick just trying to keep pace with it.
When the feds exposed the Russian spy ring last month, director Phillip Noyce must have felt like Christmas came early.
The news lends topicality and even a dash of credibility to this paranoid tale of a CIA agent, Jolie's Evelyn Salt, who is denounced as a Russian sleeper agent by a defecting KGB officer. Not only that, she is going to assassinate the Russian premier during his imminent visit to attend the American vice president's funeral. As Salt is conducting his interrogation at the time, it's not at all clear what her next move should be. So she runs.
If the FBI did Hollywood a favor, it hasn't been reciprocated. According to "Salt," the security agencies are grotesquely incompetent or riddled with double agents or both. Not only does Salt make good her escape, so does the KGB man. As for the Russian premier, his prospects don't look too healthy either.
The assassination attempt takes place less than halfway into the film's tight 100-minute running time, which is some measure of screenwriter Kurt Wimmer's determination to stay ahead of the pack.
Channeling the Cold War satire of "The Manchurian Candidate" with its brainwashed assassin into the breathless propulsion of the contemporary action film, "Salt" comes down closer to Jason Bourne than James Bond, in style if not in substance.
Jolie's casting is critical. Originally written for a man, and at one point broached as a Tom Cruise-Michael Mann production, "Salt" feels a lot fresher for its gender switch. It's not necessarily that Jolie does anything very different (though I can't imagine Cruise kicking a sanitary napkin dispenser from the wall and applying one to bandage a bullet wound), but her actions speak louder.
When she leaps from the roof of one moving truck to another in the film's showpiece chase sequence, you have to wince because unlike Cruise in "Knight and Day," road-kill seems a distinct possibility.
When she winds herself up and launches into a pre-emptive assault on an armed guard twice her size, she grits her teeth and puts on her war face, and you realize she's pulling on every fiber. In Jolie, we can see that Salt is driven by the prospect of failure; that she tries harder because she knows she's toast if she doesn't.
Credit director Noyce, too, for the film's muscular, hard-edged impact. Largely a CGI-free zone, and without going overboard on the shakicam, the action feels real, even if Salt must be made of steel to withstand the battering she puts her body through.
If they ever do make another Bond movie, Noyce just staked his claim to the director's chair. But what if 007 ever met Evelyn Salt? I have a hunch she'd eat him for breakfast.