MCN Columnists
Noah Forrest

By Noah Forrest

Is Angelina Jolie the First Female Action Hero?

I finally caught up with Salt this weekend and I’m surprised it’s gotten a pass from most of the critical community (61% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes). It’s not that it’s an awful movie, but it’s certainly not a very good one. In fact, it’s a ridiculous and outlandish film that feels twenty minutes too long despite the fact that it’s got a 90 minute running time. You’ve seen this movie before and everyone in it seems kind of bored, going through the motions, except for a nearly mute Angelina Jolie.

But the one thing I was certain of while I was watching the twists and turns of a narrative that made little sense was this: Angelina Jolie is an action star.

I want that to sink in a little bit because it’s a much bigger deal than you might think. I can think of other female movie stars that have been in an action movie or two, but I honestly can’t think of one prior to Jolie who could legitimately be called an action hero on the level of someone like Sylvester Stallone or Bruce Willis. What I mean by that is that those guys were brands and you simply took an action property and placed one of them in it and it guaranteed a greenlight and often box office success. There is a long history of female branding, but almost solely in the realm of romantic comedies or “chick flick” vehicles. We found America’s newest sweethearts by looking to see who was making the most money in a romantic comedy, with the crown held by actresses like Julia Roberts and Sandra Bullock. Can’t really picture either of those two in a film like Wanted or Salt.

What’s so interesting to me about Angelina Jolie’s career is that she isn’t interested in being America’s sweetheart. She does her share of serious work (her performance in A Mighty Heart is one of the finest female performances in the last decade), but instead of alternating that work with a light, frothy romance, instead she picks action films. Rather than filming montages where she’s frolicking with her would-be suitor in parks, she’s kicking and punching and shooting bad guys and scaling tall buildings. More than that, we believe her in these roles.

Let’s face it, action movies have long been a boy’s club. If there are female parts that require some ass-kicking, it’s usually beside a stronger male part. This summer we’ve seen two takes on a similar theme with Knight and Day and Killers, both of which are films that require most of the action to be done by Tom Cruise and Ashton Kutcher, respectively, while Cameron Diaz and Katherine Heigl shriek a lot and cower. Both of them are thrown a bone and they’re allowed to shoot a gun, but it’s clear that they are not the action heroes of those films.

Jolie, meanwhile, is doing most of the dirty work in her action films. I really didn’t enjoy Wanted, but I admired the fact that James McAvoy was playing the ingénue part and shrieking while Jolie played the calm and cool veteran of the game.

But the most important word in discussing Jolie’s action films is the word “films” as in multiple, more than one or two. Before Jolie, the only woman I could conceivably call an action hero is Sigourney Weaver due to her work in one series of films (the Alien movies) and I really think of her more as Bill Murray’s girlfriend in Ghostbusters. Every other female star since – and I mean movie stars here – has gotten where they are because they starred in romantic comedies, romantic dramas, family dramas, etc. Jolie is famous mostly due to her work as an action hero in films like Tomb Raider 1 and 2, Gone in Sixty Seconds, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, Wanted, Mr. And Mrs. Smith. More should be made of this.

As for Salt itself, as I said earlier, it’s not good. I give the film credit for having a twist that was fairly interesting, but most of the film doesn’t make any sense. We’re supposed to believe Evelyn Salt is so in love with her husband that it has fundamentally changed her, yet we barely get to see any of her husband at all. We have to take the film’s word for it that they are in love because we see almost no evidence of it. It’s hard to be affected by a film just because it’s telling you to be affected by it.

The relationship with her husband is supposed to ground Evelyn Salt as a character and make the action scenes sizzle more because she has something on the line that is greater than national security. Except the movie has no interest in actually building that relationship outside of one major act of heroism on the husband’s part in the beginning of the film.
But speaking of the beginning of the film, the movie lost me pretty much from the get-go.

You see, Salt has been detained in North Korea and is being tortured by her captors and they’ve decided to waterboard her in her underwear. You see, the part that’s wrong with that is that she’s in her underwear. I’m not a pervert – and lord knows I could easily find films where Jolie disrobes completely – but I find it hard to believe that while torturing a CIA agent, they would allow her to keep her clothes. If you’ve read anything about Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo Bay, you’re aware of the fact that prisoners who are tortured are not often allowed to keep their clothes on. I understand that the film needs to keep Jolie clothed in order to gain a PG-13 rating, but it doesn’t jibe with the reality of the situation, or at least what I perceive the reality to be. It all comes down to my favorite word: verisimilitude. It doesn’t have to be real, it just needs to feel real and this film often feels false.

But Jolie being clothed in a torture scene is hardly my biggest issue. That happens to be the scene where Jolie has escaped from her apartment building and then jumps onto a moving truck. Okay, I can buy that; it’s probably not the easiest thing to do, but in the reality of the film, I accept that it’s possible. However, her pursuers are fellow CIA agents who then decide to fire upon her while she is on top of the moving truck. My problems are thus: 1) CIA agents would risk the lives of innocent people driving down the freeway by firing their guns at moving cars? 2) Upon hearing shots fired from an overpass or perhaps actually hitting the windshield or hood of your car, you wouldn’t slam on the brakes and duck for cover? 3) None of these trained CIA agents can hit Jolie while she’s on the car? I have to believe that the CIA agents would promptly be fired for causing a fifty car pile-up and hundreds of deaths and lots of damage.

What killed me the most was the climax of the film that takes place in a bunker below the White House where apparently the President can punch numbers into a computer that will cause a nuclear war to start. Has nothing changed in national security since WarGames? Anyway, the hero of the film tries to get into this impenetrable room (remember, it’s there for the President to stay safe) by breaking bulletproof glass, which of course doesn’t work. But, aha! There’s a side door! And the side door, of course, is made of easily breakable cinder and an electronic door that is easy enough to override. Really? A side door? That’s how easy it would be for someone to kill the President? I don’t know, maybe this all 100% accurate, but the bottom line is that it felt false.

Then, the film tries to end about five times in the next ten minutes before finally ending with the least interesting of the possible ways to end it. That way, the audience can go outside disappointed. Look, it’s not the worst movie ever and Philip Noyce is certainly a capable and decent filmmaker, but it feels like it has suffered from too many cooks and studio interference. I can’t say with any confidence that those things actually happened, but that would be my guess. It just seems like there was a kernel of a good idea in there (which is what attracted Tom Cruise to the role before Jolie signed on), but it got lost somewhere. It’s always strange when a film like this is under 90 minutes and it feels like a lot has been cut out to focus on the action scenes. The problem is that when you cut a lot out of a film, it has the effect of making it seem longer than it is.

Angelina Jolie is fine in the movie, although she’s capable of much more. She’s doing the Matt Damon, Jason Bourne thing here. She doesn’t talk very much (except with her fists!) and spends most of the movie running and shooting and kicking. But like Damon, she’s such a good actress that we feel like there’s more going on under the surface. Ultimately, however, what she does best is seem believable while killing bad guys and jumping out of helicopters. She is an action hero, possibly the biggest action hero we have right now, able to headline in $100 million grossing films where she kicks ass. This is definitely not something we would have expected in the ’80s and it’s a welcome change. Now we just need her to find a better vehicle.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon