Monday, July 26, 2010

A Movie a Day, Day 71: Salt, The Girl Who Played with Fire, and other Tough-Chick Flicks

Judging by the forest of fingers that sprang up to wag at Kick-Ass this spring, a lot of people still think girls can’t play, at least not action heroes. I haven’t heard anyone complain about the ass-kickings Jaden Smith gets or hands out in Karate Kid, have you?

But try telling that to the crop of tough-chick flicks – most recently Salt and The Girl Who Played with Fire – that sprang up this spring and summer. This heartening trend started with the purple-wigged preteen heroine of Kick-Ass. (I guess you could argue that it began with Avatar’s snarling blue princess, but I don’t count Neytiri since she’s just a white-boy fantasy, Pocahontas with a crossbow.) Then there was the genetic mutant in Splice, all too compliant and feminized until she breaks out with a vengeance. And now Evelyn Salt and, once again, that girl with the dragon tattoo.

The newest kick-ass chick in the bunch, secret agent Evelyn Salt is also the most convincing. As a spy who goes from working for the CIA to running from its agents after being accused of being a double agent, Angelina Jolie brings home the bacon and fries it up in a pan she could turn into a deadly weapon on a moment’s notice. That’s girl power, all right, but we wouldn’t buy it if Jolie didn’t sell it so well. In a role initially written for Tom Cruise, she both dishes out and absorbs the rough stuff as well as any male action star. Maybe even better, since we get the added satisfaction of seeing Salt use those big eyes and lips to hypnotize her targets, blinding them with their own desire so she can go about her business unimpeded.

But she’s much more than just another Mata Hari. Like Uma Thurman’s Bride in the Kill Bill movies, Salt is an extraordinary woman motivated by ordinary needs: She aches for the happy marriage she never thought she could have. When she pauses in mid-flight to chat with a young neighbor about her homework, Jolie freezes for a moment, just looking at the girl, and her still face and sad eyes tell us all we need to know about Salt’s longing for a daughter of her own. Heroes who go on a rampage to avenge the death of a loved one are a dime a dozen, but I haven’t seen one whose emotional scars I believed in or cared about this much since Daniel Craig’s lugubrious Bond in Quantum of Solace.

Salt the movie is far from perfect – some of the action is too choppy or blurry, making it hard to follow or thrill to, and some of Salt’s escapes, like the car crash she causes and then walks away from, push through suspension of disbelief and out into cartoonish absurdity. Then there’s the odd way the movie pits the U.S. against Russia in a death race for world domination, which makes the whole thing feel a little musty. But Salt the character is a revelation, a truly female action hero.

If Jolie makes Evelyn Salt fully human, Noomi Rapace brings Lisbeth Salander only half alive, creating a sullen female Pinocchio in the film version of Stieg Larsson’s series. The Girl Who Played with Fire, like the book it’s based on, is disappointingly flat, not much more than a placeholder between the first and last installments, with its preposterous villains and talky stretches of exposition about Lisbeth’s character and her past. But Larsson’s Lisbeth was intense and intriguing enough to make me overlook a lot of the book’s flaws (besides, you can always skim the slow parts in a novel), while the movies drain her of nearly all her power and mystique by bringing her vulnerability too close to the surface.

Rapace’s impassive deadpan is meant to be like Jolie’s, a mask donned by a wounded warrior to protect herself from further harm. But Jolie constantly shows us her character’s fearless heart, leaking out just enough pain to make her sympathetic, while Rapace’s soft eyes pour out buckets of hurt for every flash of ferocity, and that ratio’s all wrong. We need our kick-ass heroines to inspire awe, not awww.


  1. "I haven’t heard anyone complain about the ass-kickings Jaden Smith gets or hands out in Karate Kid, have you?"

    Try Australia. Try Walter Chaw over at Flimfreakcentral ("Ribs cracked, legs broken; it's one thing to watch twenty-something Ralph Macchio have his shit handed to him, another altogether to watch pre-pubescent Smith roll around in agony, every bit the baby on the verge of...shaving?").

    I came up with those two in 60 seconds.

  2. I loove this thoughtful review! I am a Jolie follower as she seems to be a hero in real life as well. Jolie with all her UN missions to war torn places where she rescues children and writes millions of dollars from her ample bank account. I have not seen this movie, but I will now.

  3. Thanks for the examples, Anonymous -- and point taken. I was too glib in saying that no one objected. But I still think my point holds: many critics, if not most, objected to the violence inflicted on/by the girl in Kick-Ass, while very few objected to the ass kickings given and received by the boy in Karate Kid.

  4. Thanks for the review. I went and saw the movie and I enjoyed it. Just the act of seeing an action movie with a female action here is eye opening. This discussion reminded me of the controversy of Thelma and Louise when it first came out. A big deal was made of their language and their actions, of just how inappropriate it was for women to be portrayed in such a way. Jolie carried off the action hero very, very well. I will see a sequel if there is one. I think your point, Elise, is right on.


  5. I wanted to add this thought on this movie:

    Salt movie really sort of made me think how these big action films end up influencing people’s thinking about the country and that paranoia keeps getting more and more farcical (not of course if you are the Governor of Arizona, then you take it as a warning or a tool for misinformation and fear). It also revealed a great fear that Americans must have by how the movie plays it up, that you can literally brainwash children into hating their own country and grow up to destroy it by violent means! Very crazy and extreme, but hey 1 in 5 Americans believe Obama is a Muslim despite his daily Christian prayers and regular Christian observance.