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.