On the poster for Salt, Angelina Jolie stares down the camera, a photoshopped femme fatale with witch-black hair and alien eyes. “Who is Salt?” asks the tag line, referring to her character, a CIA spy accused of being a double agent. It might as well say, “Who is Angelina Jolie?” Because that’s the secret that seems buried in her truth-or-dare gaze. For a Hollywood icon, playing a spy is the ultimate tease. Movie star mystique is itself a kind of secret identity, a charade of glamorous subterfuge in the cloak-and-dagger game of tabloid espionage. And espionage suddenly seems to be all the rage.
While the Cold War has seen a bizarre comeback in real life—with the U.S. and Russia swapping captured moles last week just like old times—spy movies are popping up left and right. Tom Cruise and Leonardo DiCaprio are the undercover boys of summer, bending the laws of physics in Knight and Day and Inception respectively. This fall, Naomi Watts portrays real-life CIA agent Valerie Plame Wilson in Fair Game, while Helen Mirren wields a machine gun as a retired CIA agent in Red. Emir Kusturica is a traitorous Soviet spymaster in Farewell. And three new spy series are hitting TV: Covert Affairs, from Doug Liman (Fair Game, the Bourne trilogy), Undercovers, from J.J. Abrams (Lost, Alias), plus a reboot of La Femme Nikita.
Jolie’s character is a CIA operative who becomes a fugitive after being fingered as a mole in a Russian sleeper cell. Her name is Evelyn Salt, but it used to be Edwin Salt. The movie was originally developed for Cruise, who backed out, fearing it was too close to his Mission Impossible franchise. Sony executive Amy Pascal remembered that Jolie had turned down the role of a Bond girl in Casino Royale, saying she’d rather play Bond. So after Cruise bailed, Pascal asked Jolie if she would adopt the orphaned role. A script doctor performed a quickie sex change on the protagonist, turning Edwin into Evelyn, and presto—Jolie’s whim became a blockbuster.
But be careful what you wish for. The retro spy fantasy of Knight and Day fared so badly at the box office that Hollywood insiders are now wondering if it could scuttle Mission Impossible IV. The thing is, while the movie was a joke, Cruise was okay in Knight and Day. He was essentially playing himself—a mystery man navigating stunts and repartee with impeccable timing and turbo-powered charm. But he hasn’t really cut it as a leading man since Jerry Maguire, and perhaps the notion of Scientology’s control freak dragging Cameron Diaz around the world on a forced feature-length date was not everyone’s idea of a harmless summer fling.
The spy biz is not what it used to be, and it’s hard to buy the retro romance of a playboy with a licence to kill once Austin Powers has reduced it to farce. Bond himself is in danger of extinction, even after being salvaged from self-parody and rebooted as Daniel Craig’s gritty, Bourne-again avenger. With its MGM mother ship on the brink of financial ruin, the 007 franchise is in limbo. And the pundits circle like vultures, asking if now is the time to kill Bond off once and for all.
Whether or not the franchise survives, Bond remains the ultimate template for an infinitely malleable hero. And the key to keeping the character relevant, as Daniel Craig has shown, is a sense of genuine menace. That’s what Cruise was so clearly lacking in Knight and Day. Despite the glib brutality and prodigious body count, Tom was a psychopath without a dark side. Granted, this was a comedy. But when the character is fake, there’s nothing at stake. Inception, however, has action scenes that are pure Bond. As a haunted operative who infiltrates dreams, DiCaprio makes the mission intensely personal. It’s not just a game.
A spy movie ultimately rises or falls on the identity of its star. Cruise and Jolie are both talented actors, and freakish celebrities. But Cruise is such an open book that the weirdness has become a turnoff; with Jolie, it’s all part of her spooky allure as the banshee avenger. Who is Evelyn Salt? Who cares? What fascinates us is trying to crack the one-woman cult called Angelina Jolie.