July 26, 2010


When the first scene of Salt featured Angelina Jolie in her underwear, being tortured by North Koreans, I felt my heart sink. I lectured myself sternly, though. After all, we've seen a few movies with terrible introductions turn out to be quite good. Have to give it a chance.

So I gave it a chance. But it's not very good. The plot is extraordinarily silly and convoluted--it reminded Mark of that episode of South Park about the plot to assassinate Hillary Clinton. For me, it seemed more Tom Clancy-esque. Like, if Tom Clancy had a really bad day. And got paid by the word.

It is, as the trailers would have you expect, all about layers of international intrigue and double-crossing and double-double-crossing, etc. And it all flows fairly logically (i.e. you can follow it without much effort), but with every new plot twist you're left thinking not "Ooh! I didn't see that coming!" but "Oh, really? Come on! Don't do that!"

Though I have nothing of any interest to say about Salt as a story, the gender politics is worth discussing. The film was originally "Edwin A. Salt," a vehicle intended to star Tom Cruise (as per Variety). Watching it, this makes sense. Other than the original tortured-in-her-underwear scene, there is very little about Evelyn Salt that differentiates her from the men in the movie--on both sides. Except that she kicks all their asses. None of her ass-kicking is done in a "girly" way, none of it requires a leather bra or high heels, or even the quips we often get from female action heroes. She's just doing her job. I'm actually reminded a little bit of Sigourney Weaver's Ripley from the first Alien film--another role intended for a man. I love that Evelyn Salt was allowed to be concerned about her husband, a scientist. It had nothing to do with her being female and him male--he was a civilian and she wasn't. That makes sense to me, and I love to see that kind of unconscious (or seemingly unconscious) gender equity in a movie. It fails the Bechdel test all to hell, though--there aren't even any other major female characters. Evelyn definitely plays in the boy's sandbox. (Note that the relationship between Salt and her husband, which I found to be one of the more feminist aspects of the film, was apparently not intended that way--there is a piece on Scott Mendelson's Blog worth checking out about that.)

Many reviewers are calling Salt a feminist version of the Bourne trilogy. Honestly, I think that is giving a bit more credit than is deserved. Whatever else is wrong with them, the Bourne movies are pretty darn good action films. Salt isn't, it's dumb. And Jason Bourne's heroism makes sense in context--he may not remember what he's been trained to do, but it is ingrained. He's supposed to be the best. Salt offers no explanation, no matter how far-fetched, for why Angelina Jolie is able to not only run and shoot and drive real fast, but also jump from the tops of trucks or out of windows without getting hurt, climb walls like Spiderman, and perform Matrix-style kicks. No matter how unrealistic the general premise of a film may be, internally consistent logic goes a long way to make it believable. Salt doesn't have that.

On race, the film is racist in the same way all of these type of international intrigue movies are--the bad guys have a nationality and their national identify is part of what makes them bad guys. I was glad that, with the exception of Angelina Jolie, the actors who played Russians in the film were mostly Eastern European. Peabody, who is likely the film's most stable and professional character, is played by Black British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor. Though the fictional president in the film is a white dude, the fictional presidential cabinet was at least somewhat diverse, with an African-American Secretary of Defense and a female CIA Director.

Overall, this was simply a film I had a hard time getting excited about. The ridiculous plot made it hard to stay interested, and the over-the-top action heroism of Jolie's character ended up victim to it. I like Angelina Jolie as an action hero--I've crowed about her here before. This film doesn't allow her to work up to her potential, even if it is one of the best action roles for women we've seen in a while (certainly the best starring one this year). It doesn't impress me much that some of the best action roles for women in 2010 are the same ones from 1979--the ones intended for men.


Beth and I saw this, and we were both also put off by the silliness of the plot. The defector's explanation of the plot right near the beginning of the film was so long and campy, it broke my suspension of disbelief right in half, even though the film settled down to more pedestrian concerns.

Being a highly trained CIA agent - which we do see in her bio on screen at one point - explains the combat skills, but not the faux action leaps that defy physics. The action scenes early on seemed like they really required effort on her part - running like hell, jumping, etc. She got injured in the same way that Bruce Willis would have gotten injured by a jump onto a moving train in an action film, which is to say not at all. Except, and this is key, they seemed loathe to mark up her face the way they would injure a male character's face, like with a bruise on one cheek or a slightly split lip.

I liked her attacks that used kicks off the wall in some later sections. When contrasted with ScarJo's from Iron Man 2 they looked more real, less like wirework and more like someone working pretty hard to kick some butt. But when we hit the elevator scene, it changed to "I am Neo!" Really jangled the nerves.

Aside from the underwear scene at the beginning, though, I did really enjoy how *dressed* Jolie was. It was cold outside, so she was wearing a jacket and pants. Imagine! And aside from the slight flashbacks when she ensnared a useful target by flirting, she didn't use her "feminine wiles" to accomplish any of her various missions.

For all of its logic flaws, I was actually quite pleased to see a solid action movie starring a woman where I wasn't embarrassed for her by costume choices every five minutes. If they had cast just one more of the speaking roles as a woman, that would have been nice, but Hollywood seems fairly committed to portraying ass-kicking women as the exception in almost any situation.

If it had been more inspiring as a film (like if the plot had hung together) I would have given it 3 stars, but not four because of the Bechdel fail and the "well of course Russians are evil" shtick.

Re: the Bechdel test: there's a brief scene where Salt talks to her young neighbour about her neighbour's mom, homework, and a dog. Nothing to do with men.

There were also women among the various minor CIA agents initially chasing Salt, which I liked, because too often there just aren't any women in the background characters doing the kind of work, although they didn't talk to her, and I totally agree that it's unfortunate that there weren't any major speaking parts for women in the film besides Salt's.

OK, you got me! I actually did remember that scene, but discounted it b/c the neighbor was a child. But technically that does pass the test. Still, there weren't enough female characters for my liking.

I know I may lose ally-cred for this, but I actually have to address Jolie's looks: she didn't look like she could open a heavy fire door, much less fight off men five times her weight. I like Jolie, but I wish she'd have a healthier body.

Other than that, ludicrous action scenes, ludicrous plot, but at least I could follow the action on screen, and I really liked the moment with her husband. And another plus for them not making everything all right by the end: normally, the president would clear it up and nobody would have any doubts any more.

But not a good movie, overall.

I'm not sure why you would lose ally cred for this, I think it's totally viable to say "hey, this is a role that would demand great physical fitness in reality, and this actor doesn't look like she has that level of fitness or anything close to it."

@ Ide Cyan, I agree, when I saw the blond woman in the first team on the streets that was trying to retrieve Salt, I was so pleased! But then crickets....



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