It is impossible to analyze a movie like Salt without delving into the appeal of its star, Angelina Jolie. From start to finish Salt, rated PG-13 for language and violence, is a run-of-the-mill, preposterously plotted action flick-something of a low-rent Bourne Identity or less-stylish James Bond. The only thing setting it apart from other movies of its type is the fact that its protagonist is a woman.
Straight action vehicles have historically been the domain of men, and it's telling that Tom Cruise was originally slated to star here. But over the past few years Jolie has changed the field. First as a co-star and now as a solo act, she is the first A-list female to have built a career in the adrenaline game. Every other actress on Hollywood's highest earning list from Reese Witherspoon to Sandra Bullock to Meryl Streep makes most of her money in dramas and romantic comedies-that is, the kinds of movies popular with women.
Why bring this up? Because Jolie's rise as the queen of action occurred on a tide of supporting women-kicking-tail parts designed to appeal to young men. And the behavior, psychology, and priorities of these female characters increasingly bear little resemblance to reality. Evelyn Salt is a prime example.
When secret agent Salt is accused of being a Russian double agent, she barricades herself on an empty floor of her office building, uses her lacy black underwear to cover the lens of a security camera (though it seemed like her jacket would have done a better job), and creates a rocket launcher out of cleaning supplies. From there, she scales tall buildings, leaps from overpasses onto speeding vehicles, and punches and kicks her way through the hordes of tall, strong police officers trying to capture her.
Some of this is just your average suspension-of-disbelief movie experience. A 110-pound woman who can beat up three, even four, full-grown men at once? Sure, why not? It may be less plausible than a highly trained male spy who accomplishes the same feat, but we already ascribe to such characters superhuman abilities. However, Salt's motivations present an even greater role reversal. Without giving away too much of the story, which turns on the viewer being unsure of Salt's aims, it's safe to say that she is driven by revenge. And when she exacts it, she does so in the most bloody and brutal manner.
None of this is new to Jolie, whose most popular roles (in Tomb Raider, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Wanted, and Gone in 60 Seconds) have all been the girl who can bring the pain as expertly as the guys. And, incidentally, take the pain as well. As in those earlier films, Salt shows Jolie beat down as violently as any male lead, the difference being she's beaten in sexy underwear. However, it is still fairly new to a genre where women used to provide the tender counterpoint to the hardened, aggressive hero.
Does the career Jolie has carved out and the demand she has sparked for characters like hers really represent, as The Hollywood Reporter and Entertainment Weekly are crowing, progress for women? If part of the reason we go to movies is to live out our fantasies, what does it say that women seem far less interested in her films than their husbands, boyfriends, and sons?
The growing predominance of this almost completely fictional type of woman in male-targeted movies-i.e., a woman who uses brute strength as adeptly as any man and is equally driven by feelings of rage and vengeance-has the potential to cause a disconnect with reality. While the boys are dreaming of Laura Croft: Tomb Raider, a warrior-chick who's more likely to save them than need saving, the girls are lining up in droves to watch the immortal Edward sacrifice himself to protect clumsy, quiet Bella. Never before has the popular entertainment of each gender been so far from the same page.
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