Angelina: An all-action hero
Robert De Niro’s underrated drama didn’t offer Jolie an awful lot of screen time, but she tore into her big scene, ripping up the emotions the man in her life had buried too far beneath his dutiful surface. Playing alongside Damon, Michael Gambon, Billy Crudup and De Niro himself, Jolie’s presence showed the respect she commands from her peers, even if her acting abilities are usually overlooked in the paparazzi parade that is her public life.
Salt requires a different kind of performance in a very different kind of movie – a kinetic action thriller that clocks in at roughly half the running time of De Niro’s magnum opus. It’s closer to the world of Jason Bourne, in other words. Like Bourne, Salt marries its close up excitement to a longer view investigation probing the true nature of this CIA operative, a highly trained agent who finds herself at war with her own people after she’s accused of being a double agent.
Jolie’s casting is critical. Originally written for a man, and at one point mooted as Tom Cruise-Michael Mann production, Salt feels a lot fresher for its gender switch. It’s not necessarily that Jolie does anything very different – though I can’t imagine Cruise kicking a sanitary towel dispenser from the wall and applying one to bandage a bullet wound – but her actions speak louder.
When she winds herself up and launches into a preemptive assault on an armed guard twice her size, she grits her teeth and puts on her war-face, and you realize she’s pulling on every fiber. In Jolie, we can see that Evelyn Salt is driven by the prospect of failure; that she tries harder because she knows she’s toast if she doesn’t.
She’s certainly a very different kind of action hero to the bulked up meatheads we see in the week’s other big shoot-em-up, The Expendables. Sylvester Stallone’s throwback to the good old bad old days of the 1980s gives us an orgy of veteran testosterone and machismo. The only women in the film are fickle pin-up girlfriends and a beautiful rebel princess who must be rescued from torture and worse at the hands of the South American despot who also happens to be her father. (Subtle it ain’t.)
A muscle star if ever there was one, Stallone struggled for years to be taken seriously as an actor and an artist – a losing battle he appears to have given up on.
Jolie, on the other hand, has developed the kind of career that is more typical of the guys her age (perhaps taking their cue from her Changeling director, Clint Eastwood). Like George Clooney and his buddies Matt Damon and Brad Pitt, she has alternated between “one for them” (i.e. an out and out commercial movie for the suits) and “one for me” (a more personal film allowing me to show what I really want to do).
The films that were surely dearest to her would seem to be Beyond Borders and A Mighty Heart. But what makes Angelina unique are the commercial movies. There are other bankable female stars, of course, but your Bullocks and Witherspoons, even your Julias and Jennifers, they’re all very much reliant on the rom-com. Jolie is the only one to have carved out a niche in the traditional male domain of the action film. (You can point to Sigourney Weaver as a close forebear, I guess, but that’s really just the one role: take away Ripley and there’s not much left.)
Jolie made a similar impact as Lara Croft in Tomb Raider, but unusually, she has been able to capitalize on that appeal in the likes of Mr & Mrs Smith, Wanted and now Salt. We buy her in these roles because it seems to fit with the tattooed, S&M rebel she once was (or so the tabloids told us), the man-eater who stole Brad, and also because she has been careful to foster that side of her persona in strategic supporting roles like the one-eyed air commander in Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, the formidable Olympias in Oliver Stone’s Alexander, and Grendel’s monstrous mother in Beowulf. Even the Tigress she voiced in Kung Fu Panda fits the pattern: this is a woman not to be messed with.
So when Salt director Philip Noyce tells us how Angelina did (some of) her own stunts in Salt, he’s reinforcing something we already believe about Jolie, and at the same time he’s helping the actress sell the movie’s all-action heroine to the audience. It’s a perfect circle, and Salt has the potential to be another franchise. At 35, Jolie is at the height of her power – in fact she may be the most powerful female star in Hollywood right now.
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