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The latest ingredient to Angelina Jolies recipe for action stardom? A dash of Salt

HOLLYWOOD - JULY 19: Actor Brad Pitt and actr...

Jolie and her “plus one” at Salt’s Los Angeles premiere

As an actress, Angelina Jolie always has had a bit of a split personality.

There’s Jolie, the acclaimed Oscar-winning star of Girl, Interrupted, who first came to Hollywood prominence in the late ’90s with Golden Globe-winning and Emmy-nominated TV roles in George Wallace and Gia. In recent years, this side of Jolie has been most visible, winning acclaim (and, in my opinion, being robbed of an Oscar nomination) for 2007’s A Mighty Heart, and then finally scoring her second Academy Award nomination for the following year’s Changeling.

Unfortunately, one day, when the dust settles on Jolie’s career, little-seen performances like her lived-in turn as Marianne Pearl — pregnant widow of Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter who was kidnapped and killed by Al-Qaeda terrorists in Pakistan in 2002 — which made A Mighty Heart seem more like a documentary than a biopic, probably won’t be the ones for which Jolie is best remembered.

Blame it on Jolie’s alter, the woman who would be Hollywood’s first action queen. This is the Jolie that people pay good money to see, star of 2000’s Gone in 60 Seconds ($101.6 million), 2005’s Mr. and Mrs. Smith ($186.3 million) and 2008’s Wanted ($134.5 million). In the early ’00s, she nearly became the first woman since Alien star Sigourney Weaver to launch a successful action franchise when Lara Croft: Tomb Raider grossed $131.2 million at the North American box office, but those high hopes were doused two years later when the sequel, Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life, collected a disappointing $65.7 million.

If at first you don’t succeed…

It’s possible that trying again — and again — might be working for Jolie. The Friday box-office estimate for her latest action venture, Salt, was an impressive if not quite blockbuster $12.7 million. Although that’s behind the one-day total for Inception ($13.2 million), it’s more than most films headlined by a solo female star earn in their entire opening weekends. And for the sake of comparison, Grown Ups, the latest Adam Sandler movie, pulled in $14.5 million on opening day and has grossed $137.2 million to date. Decent, as in not overwhelmingly scathing, reviews have helped Salt. Also, Jolie has become a bigger star in the near-decade since the first Lara Croft, thanks in part but not only to her relationship with Brad Pitt, raising her box-office potential.

Sony Pictures Entertainment’s estimates for Salt’s opening weekend were in the $30 million dollar range, and the studio might actually get it right this time. Saturday-night grosses generally build on Friday estimates, and it’s possible that Salt will end up exceeding Sony’s expectations. That wouldn’t necessarily make it Jolie’s best opening weekend ever: Both Mr. and Mrs. Smith and Wanted landed in the $50 million range, and the first Lara Croft: Tomb Raider did $47.7 million, but with built-in interest from the video-game character. Still, if it has legs as impressive as Jolie’s and plays well internationally, it could be the start of a new franchise, with Jolie as a kind of female Jason Bourne.

Interestingly, Evelyn Salt, a CIA agent accused of being a Russian spy, wasn’t intended as a Jolie vehicle. It was meant to be The Tom Cruise Show, but when he dropped out, the role was rewritten for the female lead. This weekend, as Jolie dodges bullets onscreen, Sony must be thanking their lucky, limber star that they dodged Cruise’s.

UPDATE Salt ended up with an estimated $36.5 million over the entire weekend, behind Inception, which added $43.5 million, raising its 10-day total to $143.7 million. Although taking inflation into consideration, Salt would fall short of peak-era Julia Roberts (1999’s Runaway Bride, $35 million) and Reese Witherspoon (2002’s Sweet Home Alabama, ($35.6 million), it’s slightly higher than Sandra Bullock’s two 2009 hits, The Proposal ($33.6 million) and The Blind Side ($34.1 million), which both opened on several hundred fewer theaters. Get ready for the sequel!