Is it me, or has there been an unusually large number of films about people who kill other people for a living. We’ve seen romantic comedies about the ineffable awesomeness of being a super-trained assassin like Killers or Knight and Day, in which the suave charm of the male lead (Ashton Kutcher and Tom Cruise respectively) is inseparable from his ability to perform choreographed acts of sanitised slaughter, and in which the only defining characteristic of the females (Katherine Heigl and Cameron Diaz) is their utter interchangeability. Mostly we’ve seen ensemble mercenary pieces like The Losers, The Expendables and The A Team, tiresome examples of cinematic spread-betting – put all your quite-big stars in one basket and hopefully they’ll congeal into one big bankable name, and don’t forget to make blowing stuff up and shooting guns look fun. All of these are knocked into a cocked safety helmet by Salt, which trumps this sorry pack simply by winding up Angelina Jolie and letting her go about her business of making this kind of nonsense look serious and feel important.
You might feel as though Angelina has been in your face daily forever, but this is actually her first film role since 2008’s double bill of Wanted and Changeling. Before those two were small voice (and motion capture) roles in Kung Fu Panda and Beowulf. Yet it seems like her image and her name have been doing front-and-centre PR all along, propelled by an unnaturally intense interest in her private life and public roles. This must be true star power – to seem like you’re there when you’re not. Salt for once manages to combine the emotional grandstanding of her Oscar-baiting tales of self-sacrificing women (Changeling, A Mighty Heart) with the superhero fantasising of something like Wanted, creating the perfect showcase for her talents. That it also builds an entire plot around attempts to find out who she really is behind a series of public facades and fabricated personae can only help to play on her status as a scrutinised, sought-after superstar about whom we think we know everything, with little incentive to believe that any of it is true.
Jolie plays Evelyn Salt, a CIA operative who becomes suspected of being a sleeper agent for a Russian (yes, you only thought the Cold War was over – that’s their cue to strike!) attempt to destroy America. Forced to go on the run, she decides to uncover the real plot against the President, but even she can’t be sure that she isn’t a trained Soviet spy. With its relentless chasing, resourceful escapes and fast-cutting, handheld style, it bares more than a little debt to the Bourne franchise (at least the parts of it helmed by Paul Greengrass), but lacks the political resonance that Greengrass tried to inject into his films as if to alleviate the guilty thrill of espionage and car chases. Instead, it plays out as a demonstration of Jolie’s credibility as an action heroine, putting her through a series of set-piece fights and flights. As played by Matt Damon, Jason Bourne has a kind of superhuman automatism; Jolie’s Evelyn Salt starts out a little more awkward, and the thrill comes from watching her “activate”, going from power-suited professional all the way to a bloodied, vengeful wild thing. It gets less interesting whenever it elasticates its plausibility a little too far (Salt jumping down a lift shaft springs to mind), but for the most part it makes a virtue out of ground-level, close-up physicality. Accordingly, we can situate Jolie at the opposite end of an action-movie scale to something like Scarlett Johansson’s daft, extraneous turn in Iron Man 2, all poses and pinwheeling precision vacuumed clear of any vigour, grit or spontaneity.
No doubt Johansson’s Black Widow is supposed to be one of those “empowering” roles for women – she is, after all, beating up a bunch of guys, but she’s doing it in a gawpable tight rubber outfit that surely isn’t the most practical wear for high-kicking. This is not to suggest that Evelyn Salt is by contrast not fetishised, but that the spectacle of her body is consistently varied and playful or subversive. At the very beginning, she is stripped to her underwear, but only to accent her vulnerability as she undergoes some waterboarding in a North Korean prison. She later divests herself of her suit, which restricts her movements in the first action scenes, her high heels, which slow her down, and her panties, which she uses to cover a security camera while she gets down to the previously boysy business of building herself a pipe bomb. When finally she dresses herself in a glamourous Russian spy get-up (bring on the big fur hats!), it is with deliberately misleading intent. Having started out looking and moving like Lady Penelope, she spends the last quarter of the film in drag, first off in full prosthetic make-up that makes her look like a young Billy Joel, and then a short hair and uniform combo that reminded me a little of Elvis. Not for one second, except perhaps once as a cunning ruse, does she exhibit anything that might count as sexual availability.
This plot all feels familiar, but Jolie’s centrality makes it feel novel. You know when Salt is cornered on a bridge that she’ll escape by leaping off onto the roof of a passing truck, but notice the emotion she puts into that moment, the true (not feigned) hesitation she shows before refusing to give herself up. It’s a lead-up to a car chase, so it doesn’t need the full breathless, teary-eyed performance, but it works to cement the audience’s investment in her plight. It’s also a surprise to find her husband (August Diehl – you might not recognise him, but you’ll be pleased to learn later that the German officer with ‘King Kong’ on his forehead in the barroom scene of Inglourious Basterds found another job) kicked into a wholly subservient role. His existence barely registers, reminding us how readily such minor roles are usually designated for women. The assassination plot is also so hokey that it diverts all attention back onto the enigma of Salt/Jolie. At this point it might now be obligatory to point out that what might have seemed like far-fetched fiction now has added currency and plausibility because of the discovery of Anna Chapman and some less attractive “sleeper agents” living secret lives in the USA and just waiting for their chance to take over the PTA or something. But don’t get distracted – that’s just a spurious attempt to imply that movies like this bear something that resembles a resemblance to the real world. You’d be hard-pressed to find any similarities at all, but hey, if you can find a few, the comments section is right below the next paragraph.
In case you need more convincing that Salt is operating in a hall of movie mirrors reflecting not outwards at the world but inwards from a range of genre inflections and influences, Liev Schreiber is there as a subliminal reminder of The Manchurian Candidate. It’s not even a subliminal reminder – this reminder has passed through the door and is chucking you under the chin, teasing you for not immediately categorising this as another in a long-line of paranoid conspiracy theories about brainwashed assassins, robotic secret agents who don’t really know who they are. That belief that people can be made to carry out orders of which they have no awareness has been a popular source of terror in American popular culture, and it seemed to have died out now that it was possible to interpret all stripes of foreignness as direct, deliberate and wilful desire to destroy democracy and its adherents. (I’ll save for another post the trivial, trainspotter observation that while Schreiber was playing opposite Jolie as a fictionalised, hyper version of Valerie Plame, the CIA agent who had her cover blown, his wife Naomi Watts was playing Plame in a less action-packed telling of the tale in Doug (The Bourne Identity) Liman’s Fair Game.) If you can get beyond the timepiece plot and the house-of-cards contrivances, you’ll find an exciting star vehicle that does more than just allow its lead actress to play at man stuff. It allows her to occupy and territorialise it. Remember all those other action movies I mentioned in my first paragraph? You won’t.