Monday, July 26, 2010

Salt (2010)

In Salt, Angelina Jolie plays a character once written for Tom Cruise. If you’ve read anything about the movie over the course of its multi-month media blitz, you’ve probably read that. Primarily this tidbit is used for publicity. But to ignore the impact this sex-swap had on the film itself is to miss the importance of Salt as a potential launch pad for a new breed of action heroines.

As a thriller, director Philip Noyce’s film is a speedy, sturdy jaunt through twisty turns and heart-pounding action – the kind of film that hits you with a far-fetched concept anchored by a “did she/didn’t she” mystery, but rarely slows down long enough for you to ponder the ridiculousness of the plot, or the holes that might be found within its core question. In other words, it’s of the same breed as Enemy of the State (1998) and similar political-minded summer blockbusters, all grouped together by one common theme – success.

Salt is successful, and surprisingly so. It’s set up like a bar joke – a Russian spy walks into a CIA office, where he meets an American spy (Jolie)…and tells her that she’s actually a double agent, trained from childhood to infiltrate and destroy America from within. We have maybe two or three minutes to digest this information before the Russian spy breaks free, Jolie is on the run and the film kicks into gear.

A large portion of the success is in the film’s ability to maintain this pace, to essentially function as one long car chase that only occasionally pit-stops for emotional gas. Writer Kurt Wimmer has a track record of twisty action-thrillers (2003’s The Recruit, 2008’s Street Kings, 2009’s Law Abiding Citizen) to varrying degrees of success, but Salt is his best work to date. He finds empathetic balance in his heroine and engaging intrigue in his mystery, and his action is stellar. But his greatest success is in his hero’s transition from male to female, and the byproduct that created.

Jolie’s Evelyn Salt is a ruthless and generally desexualized action machine, a cross between the dedicated determination of Jack Bauer and the emotionally frozen Terminator. Whereas the traditional action heroine is armed with gracefully seductive fighting techniques and form-fitting outfits (i.e. Jolie’s own Tomb Raider), and the female CIA agent is presented as capable of beating you in both the ring and on the runway, Salt is tough and animalistic. Angelina Jolie is naturally seductive, and you can’t really take that out of the formula. The conventional instinct is to emphasize her sexuality. In Salt, it is repeatedly beaten out of her. She walks around bloody, dirty, and darkly cloaked. At times she’s almost unrecognizable. This is not a woman to be admired – this is a woman to be feared.

Hollywood has flirted with this extreme before, perhaps most notably in Kill Bill. But even Uma is, first and foremost, a woman. She’s defined by that. She’s “The Bride.” Evelyn Salt is just a badass, her femininity shedding (and occasionally quite cleverly) the deeper she goes into the depths of this film’s darkness.

And Salt IS dark. It’s heavy. But it’s also a ridiculous blockbuster, and that sense of entertainment keeps it from treading into too-serious Law Abiding Citizen territory.

Salt takes chances. It’s nice to hit the theater for a ludicrous summer blockbuster and find a surprising combination of conventional sensibility and rebellious ideas. And it’s fun to watch a movie once written for Tom Cruise cheese, and see Jolie bring something different and probably better to the role. As Salt, Jolie is very, very good, and not just at kicking ass. She delivers an emotional complexity worthy of real appreciation. And that might be the biggest successful surprise of all.

Updated Summer Blockbuster Smackdown Standings:

1.) Inception
2.) Toy Story 3
3.) Despicable Me
4.) Salt
5.) The A-Team
6.) Iron Man 2
7.) Get Him to the Greek
8.) Knight and Day
9.) Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time
10.) The Scorcerer's Apprentice

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