The question on the poster stated it boldly: ‘Who is Salt?’ Enigmatically at first, during the early part of the advertising campaign, and then less so, with a picture of Angelina Jolie. So, the answer would be… Angelina Jolie. That’s who Salt is. Although it could just have easily been Tom Cruise, who the script was initially developed for. So the question might also be, how do you retool an action hero when Edwin Salt is changed to Evelyn Salt? In a post-feminist world, where women are apparently allowed to watch Sex and the City without feeling as if they’re killing their own children, this might not seem like a big deal. But the script changes are strikingly evident and strangely telling.
How do we conceive of a killing machine action hero when it has a vagina? First, we see Evelyn dressed like Martha Stewart, an office body, a bureaucrat, high-powered but still rushing home for an anniversary with her dopey-looking husband, exchanging banter with her boss, played by Liev Shreiber. In the process of a last-minute interrogation, a Russian defector names a mole infiltrated into the CIA as Salt. Salt is put under arrest, but escapes. First, she disables as many of the surveillance cameras as she can – one of which is taken out by taking off her knickers and covering the lens with them. It’s a reach but I imagine this wouldn’t have happened if it had been Edwin Salt. She makes a cannon out of cleaning products, which Tom Cruise might have done, but when Jolie does it her familiarity with detergents and antibacterial floor wash smacks of some banal commentary on women’s work. Instead of taking out SWAT teams, she should be tidying up and having a quick dust. When later on, she plugs a bullet hole with a Tampax, the patient viewer might be forgiven for throwing up their arms and saying, ‘OK, we get it, she’s a woman’. There is something about leavening the Bourne-like running and jumping and inching across a ledge seven storeys up with these ‘witty’ references to female hygiene products that feels glumly apologetic. What’s the point of empowering this woman if you keep reminding everyone how jarring this empowerment is? And even fobbing some of the sexists (or post-feminists) in the audience off with the prospect of a knickerless Angelina Jolie free-climbing apartment buildings doesn’t render the film immune from the complaint that the ‘relentlessly paced spy vs spy story glosses over how a lone woman, no matter how lethal a weapon, can repeatedly take out a dozen or more armed men’, (Todd McCarthy, Indiewire, 2010), without, you know, her tits getting in the way, or something. And yet the action set-pieces Evelyn Salt survives are no more ridiculous than the daring feats Jason Bourne, Ethan Hunt and James Bond achieve despite their being weighed down by cumbersome dangling penises.
One element of Salt that seems de rigueur when it comes to promoting a female action hero, especially one who is a trained killer, is the make-over and wardrobe change. In La Femme Nikita, Luc Besson’s archetypal female assassin has Jeanne Moreau as a Fairy Godmother, who with a little bit of make-up, skilfully applied, gives Anne Parillaud’s sociopathic punk turned government killer a ladylike veneer for when she’s doing unladylike things. Evelyn Salt goes from office MILF to super-sexy super-spy, presumably with the rationale that the best disguise is to look stunningly and conspicuously beautiful, that way security guards and police officers won’t give you a second glance. She walks away from a multiple car pile-up and manages to deflect attention from herself by lowering her head slightly and glancing from side to side. At least, Nikita has a Mr Ben-like proclivity for a variety of disguises: sexy lady, chambermaid, and finally boring bureaucrat man. Evelyn Salt’s strategy seems to be to look as much like a Nikita-type femme fatale as possible. To be fair, the point, I suppose, is that the normal, conventional Evelyn at the beginning of the film was actually the disguise. The sexy super-spy is who she actually is.
But of course who she actually is, is also a construct. Leaving us to ask again: who is Salt?
Lisa Purse, in her recent book Contemporary Action Cinema, argues that there was a shift from the slightly mad ‘musculinity’ of heroines like Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor and Brigitte Nielsen’s Red Sonja of the 80s to more conventional-looking female action heroines of the 90s and noughties. However, she argues, even now filmmakers have ways of always containing their physically dynamic female leads. Although ostensibly celebrating grrl power, the Charlie’s Angels films employ several of these. Making no attempt at modernising the set-up of the 70s series, it keeps the women beholden to a male authority figure, Charlie. It places them in a non-naturalistic cartoonish universe, where ever more ridiculous events take place and the physical consequences of violence are rarely demonstrated: not a hair out of place. And in Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle (2003), Demi Moore is cast as the villain who, unlike the feminine Angels, kind of wants to be a man, what with her fetishisation of guns and the dash of lesbianism.
In Renny Harlin’s The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996), the dichotomy is played out in one character. Geena Davis is an amnesiac, Samantha Caine, who, as a result of her condition, is prone to long voice-over exposition. She lives with her daughter in a Bedford Falls-like small town, works as a teacher and is romanced by a dopey boyfriend.
(A quick aside: all these action women invariably have dopey boyfriends, usually with floppy hair. Nikita has the guy from Betty Blue (1986), Geena Davis has this metro-sexual dingle berry, Salt shacks up with an inflated Harry Potter spider expert and one of the Angels has the indignity of Luke Wilson to contend with. I’m not sure, but I think it’s because these women are actually mother figures who will at some point during the film have to protect the weakling men from outside threat.)
After an accident, Samantha’s memory begins to come back and her earlier personality gradually begins to seep in. This, at first, takes the form of doing traditionally feminine jobs with homicidal gusto, chopping veg like a demon, becoming a tiger mom with her whiney child. She also begins to break out of the prim constraints of ladylike behaviour, using foul language to match Samuel L. Jackson’s seedy private investigator. Once transformed into her original identity, the androgynous Charly, she goes from pretty to pretty 80s, with a short blond hairdo like Brigitte Nielsen in Cobra (1986) and sporting Bruce Willis’s vest from Die Hard (1988). Throughout the film there are repeated and jokey references to male genitalia. ‘Are you thinking what I’m thinking?’ she asks Jackson. ‘I hope not, ’cause I’m thinking how much my balls hurt.’ Brian Cox’s CIA father figure hides a spare gun in his crotch because ‘agents don’t like touching a man’s groin’. Charly also becomes sexually aggressive. In place of her earlier criticism of Jackson’s leering at women, she is the one who instigates a clinch for the simply stated reason she hasn’t had any recently. This fantasy figure, and it is as much a male fantasy as anything to do with empowerment, of a sexually forward, independent and capable woman, does, however, have to be reined in via Jackson’s rather pathetic plea for Samantha to be a good mother: ‘there’s a little girl … almost Christmas … wants her mother.’ I’d like to think its feebleness was an intentional comment on the feeblemindedness of the idea, but Geena Davis and Renny Harlin were also responsible for Cutthroat Island (1995), so they have form.
Towards the end of the film, Charly’s violent energies have become focused and directed into becoming the avenging protective mother as she hurtles towards the Canadian border in an oil tanker turned bomb through a road block, shouting, ‘Suck my dick, all you bastards!’ Almost exactly the same line is used in GI Jane as Demi Moore overcomes the ingrained sexism of the US Marine Corp by virtually growing a pair. In this line, we have the tension of expressing a balls-out aggression for which there is no apparent female vocabulary. This is also seen in the use of a female adversary that the kickass heroine can refer to at some point as ‘you bitch’ before dispatching, thus appropriating misogyny as a way of empowering women. A classical example of this would be the Cameron containment of the Ripley character in Aliens. More recently, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol promotes Paula Patton’s character into an action heroine hard girl for some femme on femme action, only to demote her back to being eye candy for the ending. Most bizarrely, the ‘you bitch’ line was also used in the last instalment of Harry Potter, when Ron Weasley’s mum (Julie Walters) confronts Helena Bonham Carter’s Bellatrix Lestrange.
So female empowerment, especially when it comes to avenging mother figures, paradoxically involves reasserting misogyny. Powerful matriarchs often depend on, and police, the subjugation of all the women around them, even as they hold sway, pamper their boy-men and protect their children.
Ultimately, the end of these films involves a kind of compromise. [SPOILER] Salt jumps into the river to swim to the sequel. Samantha/Charly heads south with boyfriend and daughter, having become a kind of composite of both her personalities, happy to enjoy a sunset even as she skewers an annoying cricket with a lethal knife throw. Nikita has perhaps the most satisfying ending in that she escapes the male-dominated structures of either monogamy and possible marriage, or the father figure of Bob.