You've probably seen them by now: Stark and imposing, white and bare, the bulk of the ads for 'Salt' have only the movie's title in large black lettering and a sliver of a woman's picture. There's no action scene, no cramming in of actors' names (see: 'The Expendables'), and certainly no quotes from critics eager to feed the hype. Yet while the campaign leaves much to the imagination, one thing is unmistakable: 'Salt' stars Angelina Jolie.

The mysterious marketing for the actress's new spy thriller, which opens July 23, fits neatly with the film's plot. Jolie plays Evelyn Salt, a CIA agent who goes on the run after a defector to the U.S. accuses her of being a Russian spy. Much like the 'Bourne' trilogy, 'Salt' plays on identity and perception, leaving us to wonder -- as the film's tagline suggests -- who is this lady, anyway?

'Salt' banks, of course, on the fact that not only do we know who she is (in real life, anyway), but that we'll flock to the movies to see her -- especially if she's going to kick butt and find redemption in a story laced with major sex appeal. But that's a big bet in a summer that's been a box-office letdown, thanks mostly to poor sequels and remakes, among other theories (which also include the combination of a tight economy and pricey 3-D tickets). You've probably seen them by now: Stark and imposing, white and bare, the bulk of the ads for 'Salt' have only the movie's title in large black lettering and a sliver of a woman's picture. There's no action scene, no cramming in of actors' names (see: 'The Expendables'), and certainly no quotes from critics eager to feed the hype. Yet while the campaign leaves much to the imagination, one thing is unmistakable: 'Salt' stars Angelina Jolie.

The mysterious marketing for the actress's new spy thriller, which opens July 23, fits neatly with the film's plot. Jolie plays Evelyn Salt, a CIA agent who goes on the run after a defector to the U.S. accuses her of being a Russian spy. Much like the 'Bourne' trilogy, 'Salt' plays on identity and perception, leaving us to wonder -- as the film's tagline suggests -- who is this lady, anyway?

'Salt' banks, of course, on the fact that not only do we know who she is (in real life, anyway), but that we'll flock to the movies to see her -- especially if she's going to kick butt and find redemption in a story laced with major sex appeal. But that's a big bet in a summer that's been a box-office letdown, thanks mostly to poor sequels and remakes, among other theories (which also include the combination of a tight economy and pricey 3-D tickets).
Even more unusual, it's not the A-listers who have been making bank, but mainly animated characters and a certain undead heartthrob (we're talking to you, Robert Pattinson). So far, Pixar's 'Toy Story 3,' Universal's 'Despicable Me' and Summit's 'The Twilight Saga: Eclipse' have led the summer's earnings (their opening weekends saw $110.3 million, $56.3 mil and $64.8 mil, respectively) -- and mostly left traditional tent-poles in the dust (Adam Sandler's 'Grown Ups,' while proving to have staying power, earned just $40.5 mil during its opening weekend in June). Once we're past the pillar of warm-weather releases, star-driven vehicles haven't been big winners so far.

Still, Jolie is no ordinary A-lister. This is Hollywood royalty we're talking about -- not to mention a woman with a recent track record of attracting big money at the summer box office. Jolie's last action flick, 2008's 'Wanted,' became a dark horse of a hit with $51 million in opening-weekend earnings, far exceeding Universal's earnings estimate of $35 million. The movie's June opening was the biggest ever for R-rated fare, knocking 'Knocked Up' from its throne as the champ of early-summer entertainment that could exclude kids and still earn big.




'Wanted' wasn't just a coup for films aimed at folks 17 and older. It was also a major achievement for Jolie, who scored her biggest opening ever for a live-action film. Directed by Russian hot-shot Timur Bekmambetov, the effects-heavy flick starred Jolie and James McAvoy as super-human assassins in a secret fraternity. In studio exit polls, 61 percent of respondents said that they chose to see the film because of Angelina.

Despite her big box-office triumph in summer 2008, this summer has seen a sea change for even the big screen's biggest stars. Jolie's A-list attraction is uncertain in the context of this summer's surprises, like the box-office bomb for Hollywood's prodigal son, Tom Cruise. Cruise's 'Knight & Day,' in which he stars as a hunky, identity-oppressed spy (sound familiar?) on a run for his life, culled $20.1 mil by the end of its first weekend in June. Compare that to his past summer releases, 'Mission: Impossible III' in May 2006 and 'War of the Worlds' in June 2005. 'Mission' earned $47.7 mil during its opening weekend, while 'War' grossed a whopping $64.8 mil.

What makes 'Knight & Day's' cold opening even more shocking is that Cruise wasn't the only A-lister in attendance: Cameron Diaz co-stars as his character's pretty, civilian sidekick. To be fair, Diaz doesn't share the stellar track record of her co-star's live-action vehicles. Her warm-weather forays for the past two years have been disappointing earners to varying degrees ('My Sister's Keeper' opened to $12.5 mil in June 2009, and 'What Happens in Vegas' earned $20.1 mil during its opening weekend in May 2008). Diaz's last live-action, summer opening to make a relative box-office dent was 'Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle,' which surfed its way to $37.6 mil when it opened in June 2003.
Still, as Jolie sets out into the tundra of this summer's cinematic landscape,'Inception,' which opened July 16, may offer a more optimistic turn for the movie-going climate. Much like 'Salt,' Christopher Nolan's much-anticipated movie is among the few summer films that are both original stories and star-driven -- and the combo clearly paid off, with earnings of $60.4 mil in its opening weekend. It was the biggest opener ever for Leonardo DiCaprio, who headlines the thriller about psychological espionage.

So did DiCaprio pave the way for fellow A-listers to reclaim their status as box-office behemoths? Not so fast: Much like Cruise's less-than-stellar summer outing, Nicolas Cage had no such gold-paved road with his vehicle 'The Sorcerer's Apprentice,' which earned just $17.4 mil when it opened over the July 16 weekend. It seems then that the formula for box-office success this summer is more nuanced than that for Hollywood gives audiences credit. As one member of Warner Brothers' top brass said, "Being original and fresh matters in this marketplace." And they should know -- Warner Bros. released 'Inception.'

A-listers -- and particularly Jolie who's widely seen as an anomaly in Hollywood -- then, still have a shot to reclaim their role as mega-earners, but only if their seasonal movies do them justice. With a challenging premise and major hype, 'Inception' has clearly raised the bar for must-see movies that audiences pounced on in summers past -- just in time for 'Salt's' arrival, with a gorgeous A-lister at the helm.