I can’t think of many major spy action movies in the last 20 or 30 years which had women in the lead roles. I can think of three if we count movies which include women as assassins who may or may not work for the government. La Femme Nikita, Mr & Mrs Smith and Salt.
The last two both star Angelina Jolie. I’m sure you folks can think of a few more (considering how narrow my movie experience is). But it’s still pretty telling. It’s trivial to reel off loads of spy action/thrillers starring men, and it’s no surprise that this is the case.
Salt was originally written for a male star (Edwin Salt was the character), but after negotiations didn’t work out, they turned to Angelina and re-wrote the lead as Evelyn Salt. Personally, I love Angelina’s acting and that colours my perception of any movie she’s in. This is an action movie first and foremost, lovingly employing many of the tropes we expect from the spy movie genre. The role is no less physical than it would have been if the character had remained male, I suspect, and for me, Evelyn’s actions were more believable than perhaps a male characters would have been. I expect, of course, that the bits which make a lot of sense for a female role were added after Jolie was cast, but still, it works well.
The plot is reasonably simple (I’ve seen some reviews saying how it was horribly complex, but not so for me). Early in the movie, Evelyn Salt is accused of being a double-agent, and the movie centres around her subsequent actions and peeling back the onion-layers of her life so we can find out the truth. Whether she is or not isn’t really that critical, it’s how she behaves and what she believes she has to do as a result that matters.
In this respect, it’s similar in story to the first Mission Impossible movie, but then, when you’re writing about spies you only have so many options.
Jolie is excellent in the lead role, supporting actors are good enough although there aren’t many other roles. While I liked both Liev Schreiber (her CIA boss) and Chiwetel Ejiofor (CIA counter-intelligence), if I have one complaint about the movie it’s that they weren’t strong enough and could have done with more screen time.
The pace is excellent and non-stop once the initial bomb is dropped, and although I was able to work out pretty early on what was really going on, it didn’t spoil the actual film, and I did start doubting myself before the big reveal.
I cared about Jolie’s character and I cared what happened to her. I wanted her to succeed whatever side she turned out to be working for, and she sold the emotional elements of the role very well. The fights were choppy and I felt she was underused in some sections when she demonstrated in Wanted and Mr & Mrs Smith she’s more than capable of pulling off the physical stuff. But that’s a minor gripe in what otherwise was an enjoyable and entertaining spy action movie.
It’s not going to turn into a classic, but it was classy, well groomed, well paced and well received in this house.