It’s always been a tough deal for movies to portray realistic female action heroes. The obvious ones are Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley in the Alien movies, Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor in the Terminator franchise, and Carrie Anne-Moss’s Trinity in the Matrix Trilogy. The likes of Michelle Rodriguez (Fast and Furious, Machete) and, more recently, Zoe Saldana (Avatar, The Losers), have also proven themselves quite adept in action-heroine roles but they are tough shoes to fill: these days you often have to be skinny, petite and beautiful, as well as toned, with some muscles, and a convincing ability to fight. And, above all of that, there’s one big problem. However tough these girls are portrayed as, if you have them opposite a 6ft well-built guy, and show them getting hit, square, in the face by a solid punch, it is very difficult to convincingly show them coming back from that.
With actresses like Milla Jovovich and Kate Beckinsale, this problem is largely circumvented by use of the super-strength conceit, allowing them to both sustain and disseminate significant physical damage (c.f. Resident Evil quadrilogy and Underworld franchise, respectively). Even Angelina Jolie, who – despite being often lauded as one of the most beautiful actresses on the planet – comes across as more convincing than many of the svelte aforementioned souls, has had to rely of the comic book-style conceit to do the majority of her action work (Wanted, Tomb Raider and Mr & Mrs. Smith), wherein reality is not of primary concern. But Bourne, or modern Bond? Is there a female equivalent? Well Angelina Jolie’s latest action character, Salt, sure is hoping to be a contender.
Evelyn Salt is a CIA Agent. It’s been 2 years since she was returned to the States after being caught and tortured as a spy in North Korea. But when a Russian walk-in spy arrives in Langley, ostensibly with a view to defect, some dark truths are unearthed about Salt’s history, and her loyalty to America is put into doubt. Accused of being a sleeper agent, and plotting to assassinate the visiting Russian President, the authorities seek to isolate and interrogate the suspected double-agent, to see if there is any truth to the accusations. But Salt has other plans, and uses her wits and training to escape and evade as the heavily-armed net closes around her. Will she get away and find out the truth behind what is going on? And is she really who she says she is, or is she actually instrumental in this impending assassination attempt?
Back before Daniel Craig took over as Bond, I remember having high hopes for Die Another Day, the last of the Brosnan entries. Long before its release, it was being pitched as a much darker Bond, and the pre-credits sequence told you as much, with Bond caught in North Korea and tortured as a spy. Months pass and eventually he is traded back to the British, in an exchange. I remember being progressively disappointed by everything that happened in Die Another Day after the standout opening, and wondering what would have happened had they struck to the bleak and very dark premise.
Salt kickstarts with an almost-identical opening, and whilst it does not necessarily make good on the premise either, it certainly does not devolve into invisible cars and CG icebergs. In my opinion, it is the equivalent of a decent pre-reboot Bond film, or a solid Mission Impossible film entry. Of course, that is, with a female protagonist. But that was not always going to be the case – the movie was originally written with a male lead in mind, hell I think they even wanted Cruise (thankfully he didn’t do it, because the M:I parallels are too great) – and it’s one of the aspects where things start to fall down.
First of all I’d like to say that I really enjoyed this movie, it’s a quality effort by all those involved, providing an entertaining, action-packed, twist-laden ride for its reasonable duration. Angelina Jolie is an enchanting lead, fairly agile on the action front, and ably assisted by both Liev Schreiber, on good form, and Chiwetal Ejiofor. And Director Phillip Noyce may not be on Patriot Games/Clear and Present Danger form, but he still manages to give us a flashy, stylish but not too over-the-top (at least in the action department) thriller, with an effective, tense score and some solid action setpieces. As a backbone, the treacherous espionage narrative is certainly enough to keep you engaged, and interested, throughout.
But it’s nothing more than a solid, above-average effort, entertaining but not quite standout; flashy and twisty, but lacking enough substance to back it up. They sure do try and go for Bourne/Reboot-Bond style here, but here you can taste the artificial sweeteners – it’s definitely of the diet action-spy-thriller variety, à la Mission Impossible or pre-reboot Bond. That’s not to say that things aren’t very entertaining, but the plot twists seem like something more out of an enjoyable comic book adaptation, rather than a serious Bourne contender. And even if the heroine’s stunts aren’t quite so over-the-top that you place them in the aforementioned comic book category, there is some struggle to accept Angelina Jolie’s abilities in combat. She may be really good with a gun, convincing at escaping and evading under fire, and using all the ingenuity you would expect from a modern super-spy; but have a heavy-set guy lay a solid punch to her head and you expect her to go down like any other elegant, fairly thin-framed girl would. It doesn’t help that there isn’t a huge amount of distinctive technique to her fighting skills, no amazing martial arts on offer here – they would have been better off with a more overtly Bourne approach: quick cuts and lightning-fast moves. Instead, we get a few nice blocks and locks, but the longer fights often devolve down to just trading punches, or performing the occasional elaborate run-up-on-the-wall-and-kick and the requisite head-butt that seems all too common in action films with female leads. Seriously, Angelina Jolie gets head-butted and she’s not even phased? Hell, she just head-butts right back. Give me a break. (And for all those statements about doing all her own stunts, watch the motorbike scene – not even the most daring stunt – and you’ll see, in High Definition glory, that this is clearly not the case) Of course you can suspend disbelief to allow Jolie to kick ass, but if you do so, you’re letting the comic-book style take over, and this takes us further away from a serious modern spy action thriller.
The strange folk-tale-ish flashbacks also totally took me out of the movie. They weren’t like Bourne’s recurring nightmares, hinting away at the treachery that he just can’t quite remember, they were absurd, almost dream-like representations, complete with a peroxide blonde male wrestler who looks like he has just escaped from the circus. I expected better from Noyce, and again it harked of comic-book origins, even though this isn’t based on one.
When all is said and done, Salt still delivers the goods, however. Whether or not it’s enough to justify multiple viewings – and potential sequels – is another question, and that was clearly the intention by this first chapter, but it certainly keeps your attention, is peppered by engaging, imaginative set-pieces, reasonably realistic stunts, some silly fighting, good gunplay and an over-the-top finale which, itself, probably has enough twists in it to fill up a season of 24. It’s always enjoyable to see Angelina Jolie doing her action-heroine thing, and she’s on Mr & Mrs Smith form here, rather than two-dimensional Lara Croft, with maybe a little Wanted thrown into the mix. Her character here will never be the female equivalent to Bourne, or even reboot-Bond, but it matches up to Brosnan-era Bond, and stands up alongside some of the Mission Impossible entries (complete with ridiculous disguises). Even if Cruise will always be a more convincing action lead, I’m quite happy he did Knight and Day instead, and pleased they changed the sex of the protagonist to make things a little more unusual. And of all the people they could pick, Jolie’s probably one of the few leading ladies who can pull it off reasonably well. Salt’s a decent action flick, a modern spy thriller blockbuster which sports little depth of characterisation or story, but enough punch and panache, twists and turns, and guns and bombs, to keep you well entertained. Definitely worth checking out.
Theatrical Cut vs. Director’s Cut vs. Extended Cut
I’ve separated this into its own section because, honestly, you really shouldn’t be reading this part unless you’ve already seen the movie. In case it isn’t clear enough already – SPOILERS AHEAD. Salt, rather oddly, has been released in three different versions on Blu-ray, each roughly the same length (just over 100 minutes), but all fairly different, particularly towards the end. For further information, it’s worth trawling through the Director’s Commentary, as he talks at length about the reasoning behind them – noting that they preferred the Director’s Cut, but that a lot of the extra footage would have meant the main movie would have been R-Rated (or the equivalent internationally).
For those only familiar with the Theatrical Cut, there are two things you have to remember for the comparison. (1) The first time you know Salt is not a bad guy is when she decimates the crew on the barge, using grenades and handguns to dispatch the other agents and their handler – the guy who came into CIA as a defector at the beginning. (2) Winter, the other sleeper agent, who Salt confronts at the end, knocks the President unconscious when he’s trying to set off the nuke.
The Director’s Cut ups the ante somewhat, of course including significantly more violence (torture at the beginning, bullet impacts and body blows throughout, as well as the aforementioned Angelina Jolie headbutt), but also more flashbacks – both to Salt’s childhood training, and also to establish her relationship with her husband (played by a terrible actor – I can see why they cut many of his scenes out). Furthermore it features a far more protracted death sequence for Salt’s innocent husband: rather than being shot – as in the Theatrical Cut – he is now drowned, slowly, right before her eyes. It retains the subsequent barge slaughter sequence, revealing Salt’s true motivations at the same stage, but now ends on an even more twisted note– Winter doesn’t just knock out the President, he actually shoots him dead. Thus, after exactly the same ending as the Theatrical Cut (where Salt is set free to go and find the rest of the sleepers), we now get a final twist, where the new President is revealed to be visiting the grave of his parents, who died in a plane crash in Russia when he was young (thus hinting that the new President is a sleeper agent himself!).
Personally, I thought it was excellent that they killed the President – a real standout moment in a drama that doesn’t generally detour too far from safe territory. I also thought some of the additional flashbacks added a bit more character development, and the drowning scene was more significant than a simple shooting. The final twist, however, is utterly ludicrous – one twist too many. It also leaves it difficult for them to offer a sequel (what with the US being run by a Russian sleeper spy). But fans should easily be able to watch this cut and enjoy it probably at least as much as the Theatrical Version, just ignoring the final coda.
Then there’s the Extended Cut. Now I have no idea why it is called the Extended Cut – I think it’s actually shorter than both the other versions. Perhaps Alternate Cut would have been a better name? Still, this is the most significantly different cut out of the three. It has the same violence and extended background as the Director’s Cut, but here we no longer get the early reveal of Salt butchering the people on the barge (she simply meets her handler, and then leaves the area, and we are only told later about the deaths at the dock) and so her motivations are largely kept undisclosed until the final act. This is quite a clever move, as it keeps you guessing longer. It also means that the handler is never shown to die, so at the end, after we follow the ending of the Theatrical Cut (President only knocked out, Salt remanded in custody) she now doesn’t get ‘freed’ in the helicopter, but gets taken to a hospital where she’s interrogated by Peabody, who is slowly getting to the truth about what happened. Salt fakes committing suicide using a pill in a false tooth, escapes the hospital, and is next seen dressed up as a nun and going to wreak explosive revenge on her handler. The movie closes on this note.
Now this is the most dramatically different cut, and it’s difficult to fully assess how well it works. You see, I quite like the fact that Salt’s motivations are kept secret for longer – but that does mean that a pivotal shootout, one of the best in the movie, is actually stripped out. And here the final escape and act of revenge feel a little, well, cheap; tying things up so that a sequel would be highly unlikely. It has neither the strength of the Theatrical/Director’s Cut helicopter escape ending, nor does it really provide any true impact. You don’t care much for her getting revenge on her handler – mainly because he’s not a big enough character. Still, with a little tweaking, this could have been a good version, and fans should definitely consider giving it a watch.
For those who don’t want to sit through the entire movie three times I would suggest you watch the Theatrical Cut – because that’s the one they’ll probably rely on for any potential sequel (I don’t think the Box Office success has been enough to guarantee it, yet). If you want to see the differences between that and the DC, just watch the last half an hour to get the most significant changes. For a revisit to the film (like those who saw the Theatrical Cut at the cinemas), watch the Director’s Cut in its entirety. It’s more violent, has more story and you can easily substitute the twist at the end about the President for the one they will run with in the sequel – i.e. that he survived. The Alternate (Extended) Cut is a tough one. It’s like a completely different experience, but you still have to watch most of the same footage that you would have seen before, potentially already at least 2 times. Those not prepared to sacrifice the time (understandably), should just watch the ending – you will be able to understand it from the notes above about how they removed the barge slaughter sequence. Those who really love the whole Salt experience can sit down and watch it for a third time and figure out what they think of a very different variation on the movie’s plot, with a much later reveal. When all is said and done, none of the cuts make Salt a better movie, they are all just alternate visions, offering interesting parallel universes for those who like the film to check out.