The most relentlessly plugged nugget of information surrounding the snappy/ preposterous espionage-action thriller Salt is that Angelina Jolie took on the title role after Tom Cruise turned it down. That may well, in fact, be true. But the fact that you’ve read about it in virtually every review of the movie, and every feature pegged to it, tells you that it’s also a very craftily orchestrated piece of the publicity, a calculated way of shoring up Jolie’s image as an action star. (She took on a role designed for Cruise!) What’s fascinating is that the Jolie/Cruise connection has been exploited in a much different way than it would have been, say, 15 years ago.
Back in the ’90s, if an action role tailored to Tom Cruise had ended up going, instead, to a prominent actress, that tidbit of casting gossip would have been dropped into the media to legitimize the then fairly out-of-the-ordinary prospect of a chick heroine leaping off speeding trucks and using human beings for target practice. Now, it has a subtly different effect: Instead of calling attention to the novelty of it all, it reinforces the casual, no-sweat nature of the gender flip. Jolie as a CIA assassin who can fashion a rocket launcher out of the contents of a supply closet, who kick-boxes her way out of every jam, who walks on ledges like Spider-Woman, who mows down adversaries (Russians and Americans) with such heartless efficiency that she makes Jason Bourne look like a wuss…well, of course. As a thriller, Salt offers a cutting-edge example of how big-screen action heroines have edged their way past novelty, through legitimacy, and into inevitability. They’ve become the new normal.
So what else is new, you say? Well, okay, but before we get too blasé about it, let’s remember: The blockbuster mixture of estrogen and octane hasn’t been around for that long. You can find antecedents in the 1960s, like Bonnie and Clyde or Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (or even in the late ’40s, like Gun Crazy), and in the 1970s, like the Pam Grier blaxploitation flicks, or Sigourney Weaver in Alien. To me, though, the Ur-landmark in the chick-who’s-as-badass-as-any-man gunslinger genre was Abel Ferrara’s 1981 feminine revenge thriller Ms. 45, which served up its role reversal with a midnight-movie hipsterishness that cued you to see that something revolutionary was going on.
It’s amusing to realize, in hindsight, that Luc Besson’s funky-violent French art-house thriller La Femme Nikita, in 1990, and its rote American remake, Point of No Return, in 1993, were still treating lady-killer heroines with kid gloves. At that point, seeing an actress like Anne Parillaud or Bridget Fonda behave with a sniper’s cunning engaged the same exotic element of role-playing novelty that the band Heart did in the ’70s. Until Nancy Wilson, believe it or not, we hadn’t really ever seen a girl play an electric guitar before — it was a glass-ceiling-smashing, paradigm-busting cultural gear shift.
Angelina Jolie, of course, just about patented the modern action heroine in the Tomb Raider movies. She singlehandedly made the woman as action star a viable commercial property, but the fact that she played Lara Croft as a Vargas Girl in motion, a kamikaze pinup for guys to drool over, marked her as a transitional figure. The other key transitional figure was, of course, Uma Thurman’s pouty, sexily damaged yellow-suited ninja avenger in the Kill Bill films — a great character, to be sure, but one who wore her feminine idiosyncrasy as proudly as Pam Grier once did.
In Salt, there are a few winks, early on, to Angelina Jolie’s sultry erotic appeal (like the moment when she slips her panties onto a surveillance camera), but in general she’s de-sexualized: an artillery-wielding dynamo first and a woman second. In many ways, it’s really the exact same movie that it probably would have been with Tom Cruise. In that light, I can’t help but link Evelyn Salt, with her ruthless post-feminist cunning, to another current heroine tougher than any man around her: Lisbeth Salander, the implacable hacker/bruiser/punk avenger from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and its sequels. I’m speaking of both the books and the two Swedish movies that have been adapted from them — especially the second one, in which Lisbeth becomes an almost pure action heroine.
Lisbeth is a character who was clearly inspired, to a large degree, by Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs. She may be a lone wolf, but she’s presented as a figure who’s overthrowing an entire world — a global system — of male violence/perversion/oppression. The way that Noomi Rapace, with her stringy physique and Pink-meets-the-devil glare, her whole sullen minimalist charisma, plays Lisbeth, she could almost be Evelyn Salt’s darkly invincible sister-in-arms. And the forthcoming American remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is poised to kick all that up several more notches. Sure, the movie, like Salt, will have many, many antecedents, stretching all the way back to the days of Ms. 45 and Foxy Brown. The difference is that Angelina Jolie and Lisbeth Salander seem poised, in their way, to take on the 21st century. They’re breaking, and making, the rules at a time when a woman taking action is no longer an adorably fluky role-reversal option. More and more, it’s the inevitable option, the one that obliterates all others.
So who’s your all-time favorite female action character? Do you want to see more of them? Do you think we will? And is there an actress out there, who isn’t an action star today, who you’d like to see become one tomorrow?