When I saw the trailer for Angelina Jolie’s bangin new action spy Cold War suspense thriller flick I thought two things: a) this looks generic and boring and b) I believe this may be the first generic, boring action spy film I’ve come across in which the protagonist is a woman.
It was this nagging second consideration that drew me irresistibly to fork out a student price on a bored Sunday afternoon to see Salt, which indeed turned out to be fairly standard and predictable, but somehow also quite engaging. The supposedly breathtaking double-agent-themed plot twists were yawn-worthy and rehashed, but the directing was raw, the fight scenes savage and the stunts unrealistic but powerful. Jolie’s performance was uncharacteristically impressive; her character was roaringly uncompromising and incredibly absorbing.
If I was subconsciously hoping for a new feminist manifesto I was undoubtedly disappointed. At the bottom line, this was mainstream Hollywood profit-making fare: the creators clearly did not have glass ceilings or widespread cultural empowerment in mind. The film was originally offered to Tom Cruise – Jolie only managed to force a rewrite after he turned it down – so there was definitely nothing feminist in the original script.
Yet I give credit to whoever was responsible for its Jolification. Despite the Hollywood veneer there are clearly some interesting gender issues at play here, some subtler than others. If there were any like-minded feminists in the cinema I doubt any of them were not resisting a cheer in the first chase scene when Jolie makes a point of removing her business-woman heels in order to run more effectively and then – yes! – takes off her lacy underwear from beneath her skirt to cover up a security camera that might give away her plans. This is the most obvious feminist nod in the film: an elimination of items symbolic for their suppression of women and indeed their ironic use against the supposedly more powerful male forces in order to defeat them.
The other evidently gender-centric moment comes towards the end of the film, when Jolie disguises herself as a man to infiltrate the White House and save the world from the villain’s plot to use US nukes to kill 9 million people. What I liked about this bit is that rather than simply dress as a man and be done with it, Jolie removes the face-moulding rubber stuff which she uses to get through security and re-reveals her feminine features before she gets down to the real business of beating up all the security guards and having a final guns-ablazin show-down with the bad guy. She’s still wearing men’s clothes and has strangely-cropped short hair though – the gender stereotypes seem to get all scrambled.
This is pertinent, because in a way the whole film is less simple than the simple gender-role reversal it at first appears to be. Jolie is a lone woman in a world full of masculine power-jostling and violence, yet she remains a woman and can still dominate the whole darn system. Throughout the action, it is clear that her motivation always comes from her love of her husband. In a plot characterised by ambiguity regarding loyalty, their relationship is the only true and unquestioned certainty. Further, the damsel in distress cliché that still runs riot in modern cinema is very obviously subverted: it is she who has to rescue him; it is he who is incapable of defending himself and gets killed.
I have to say that my feminist senses were tingling from the very first frames of this film. It opens with a rape-implied torture scene in a North Korean prison, with Jolie badly beaten-up by all-male guards, wearing nothing other than some flimsy pants, a bra and lots of blood. The yardstick for the fate of females in the world of power is thus solidly established. The rest of the film is all the more assertive and empowering for this, even though the effects of violence against Jolie’s character remain evident and realistic throughout, despite the improbable stunts that often cause it. The last moments of the film mirror its beginning – Jolie, her clothes torn, her nose broken, her face and body caked in yet more blood, is running for her life through a dead-looking forest having been repeatedly punched in the face by a man who comes to respect her and who has been unable to defeat her in any of her plans. Somehow, despite this desperate appearance, there is an undisputed and uplifting vitality and power about her.
Perhaps, after all, Salt is not so generic and boring as I thought.