The world lacks a female super spy. Angelina Jolie has perhaps come closer than most to filling the void with her all action portrayal of sexy video game Tomb Raider Lara Croft, but this was ultimately more Indiana Jones than James Bond. Last year Phillip Noyce’s Cold War conspiracy thriller Salt, originally earmarked for Tom Cruise, morphed into a very different project altogether with the casting of Jolie as CIA agent Evelyn.
I may be veering into sexism here, but because of Jolie’s casting my expectations were drastically lowered. However I’ll defend myself with two qualifications; firstly I think of Jolie as more than merely an internationally coveted sexual icon, but as a fine and capable actress, particularly after her powerhouse performance in Clint Eastwood’s excellent Changeling. Secondly I believe I expected disappointment because of the film industry’s own sexist view of women playing action leads, rather than my own narrow and intolerant perspective on the “fairer sex”.
What I mean by this is that women rarely seem to be cast in serious mainstream action films. They’re a common feature in action comedies, such as the dire Knight and Day and Jolie’s own light-hearted romp with her equally famous and sexy spouse in Mr and Mrs Smith. But there’s no realistic and gripping female equivalent to the Bourne series, for example. Filmmakers are reluctant to showcase women, even today, as ruthless and professional killers without elements of fantasy. Watch a film about what is essentially a paid, female murderer (a “hitwoman”) and expect lots of ninja style, silly high kicking and unbelievable martial arts, alongside tight costumes, to offset such a horrific notion.
Sadly this is a formula that Salt eventually and perhaps inevitably, conforms to. The opening of the film is promising. Once we get some god awful dialogue out the way, probably ripped straight from the “how to script a film in the espionage genre” handbook, along with some forced flashbacks, we get Salt interrogating an apparent Russian defector. He drops the bombshell that there’s a sleeper agent in the CIA, and that agent is called Evelyn Salt.
Salt is dismissive at first, but all the high tech brain scans and probably some ingenious pad questioning his balls from his seat, says that he’s telling the truth. After a bit of dithering Salt decides to run, apparently out of concern for her husband, but it still seems rather daft if she really is innocent. Once she does run however, it looks as if Salt is going to be a decent film.
With the shadowy, backstabbing premise of the plot and some tense evasion of security cameras by a grey suited Jolie, Salt seems very Bourne-esque at first. And a female Bourne film would not have been such a bad thing. Boxed into an interrogation room, Salt constructs a makeshift weapon from chemicals and chairs and table legs to allow her to escape. She then flees for home to look for her husband and just avoids capture by climbing around the outside of her building. Finally she escapes the city after a standoff by jumping from truck to truck on the freeway.
During all of this action it’s easy to get swept up and the character remains believable. You sympathise with her apparent innocence and will her to succeed. But once Salt heads to New York based on information that someone will attempt to kill the Russian President at the Vice President’s funeral, the plot completely loses its way. It utterly surprised me on several occasions but purely because it becomes so absolutely ludicrous. You can no longer relate to Salt as a character and the action degenerates into ninja Jolie implausibly kicking the asses of trained security personnel in seconds.
At first I thought it was refreshing that Salt was a spy thriller based on the old Cold War rivalries and tensions. Cinemagoers could do with a little more entertainment courtesy of grand, evil schemes, rather than grim and realistic takes on Al-Qaeda. There’s nothing wrong with fantastical plots based on extravagant conspiracies and the destruction of the world, providing they’re executed plausibly. But Salt is just too farfetched and has too many holes, mainly surrounding the believability of its characters. It also strays into the absurd and hilarious; supposedly a “master of disguise” Salt looks fairly obviously like Angelina Jolie dressed as an effeminate man infiltrating the White House.
As usual with Blu-Rays, there’s a whole host of meaty special features to devour about the making of Salt. There’s a baffling section on Salt’s supposed genius as a “master of disguise” and a separate “in screen” interview with the costume designer explaining the selection process behind Jolie’s grey suit earlier in the film. Apparently it was really beneficial to visit the CIA and presumably discover they wear boring and generic corporate power suits like everyone else. The most revealing sections are interviews with Noyce and Jolie about the fact Salt was originally written for a man, which might account for some of the script’s rough and unfinished feel.
There are some pleasing references to classics of the genre in the film, for example when “defector” Orlov escapes using a blade concealed in his shoe, like Rosa Klebb in From Russia With Love. But in the end Salt resembles a mishmash parody of everything it has taken influence from. It lacks originality, quality and entertainment for most of its thankfully brief 100 minute runtime.
THE AMERICAN is the sort of serious and sombre story that sadly wouldn’t get made with a woman in the title role. It’s a slow-burning meditation on the nature of being an assassin and on loneliness itself. It’s an exercise in minimalist storytelling from writer Rowan Joffe, adapting Martin Booth’s novel A Very Private Gentleman, and particularly, director Anton Corbijn. With the lightest of brush strokes he paints what was, for me, an incredibly evocative and captivating picture.
I had meant to see The American on the big screen but sadly its lack of success at the box office resulted in a short stay at my local multiplex. For critics the problem with The American is that it never truly ignites following such a tantalisingly drawn out simmering of tension. Many find it boring to sit through. But for anyone that loves the genre, the intoxicating idea of the lone assassin, or anyone that likes understated and subtle films, The American is wonderfully watchable.
In many ways George Clooney shouldn’t work in the title role. He is such a recognisable face across the globe, a brand rather than a name, that he shouldn’t convince as an unknown and elusive assassin. But Corbijn needed someone who could act without words and Clooney delivers a master class. When there is dialogue Clooney enthuses it with charisma; it oozes enigmatic intrigue. When the camera is entirely reliant on Clooney’s movements a pained expression, a cold glance or a precise gesture speaks more than a page of script ever could. This has been hailed by some as the best performance of Clooney’s career for a reason. We’ve never seen him laid bare like this; robbed of the charm and the cheeky grin.
More than anything else The American is beautiful. Its soundtrack is haunting, atmospheric and touching. Every other shot would make an arty still in a gallery; in Corbijn’s second picture after the acclaimed biopic Control, his background as a photographer is constantly evident. Clooney’s character chooses photography as his cover and there’s something about the parallels of precise skill and solitude between pictures and killing that’s endlessly fascinating. Indeed the subtlety of the storytelling really lets you think about its themes whilst enjoying the gorgeous visuals and the sexy girls.
The loneliness of existence is there in every furrow of Clooney’s focused face; the life of the assassin is the perfect lens for examining anyone’s existential angst. His character makes meagre relationships that wouldn’t satisfy many human beings, and yet they prove too much and too risky for his secretive profession. Despite the reports of boredom and never-ending build-up, I thought that the restrained action punctuated the plot well and the climax of the simple story was suitably engrossing.
In many ways Salt and The American both take “old school” approaches to a familiar genre; Salt with its outlandish Cold War plot and The American with its focus on an age old character, complete with soul searching scenes with a priest. The undoubted difference between the films though is a sumptuous and sexy style and quality that makes The American infinitely more interesting than Jolie’s briefly entertaining foray into the world of espionage.
The Shadow Line – Episode 2
Last week I confessed my confusion as to what precisely constituted “event television”. The first episode of The Shadow Line offered up an answer full of lingering shots of shiny details and realistic, stylised dialogue. Opinion was split between the lovers and the haters. Some drooled over the glossy detail and ominous script, whilst others gagged over the pretentious direction and fakery of the lines. I fell somewhere between the two extremes. I welcomed a British show oozing quality and ambition, but I grimaced at some of the glaring blemishes when the script tried too hard.
All in all it was a mixed opener, which set up a myriad of competing plot lines to speculate about. Thankfully the second episode built on the strengths of the first, whilst ditching most of its failings. Last night it felt like The Shadow Line properly broke into its stride. Literally. The episode ended with a selection of the key characters running at full pelt across a park, and then through London streets.
It was a chase sequence that prompted Chiwetel Ejiofor’s character to shout “SHIT!” and “I am on foot. Typical fucking British car chase”. But it didn’t feel like a typical action sequence from British TV for the audience. And it certainly wasn’t shit. Perhaps I was finally beginning to understand this “event television” nonsense. The climax to the episode was brilliantly judged, with the chase sequence moving up through the gears of drama. It featured only one standout stunt, a relatively simple car crash, but it shunted characters from cars to parks to tube stations (Bethnal Green incidentally, one I am familiar with) with expert fluidity.
The episode finally got its hands dirty with some plot progression after all of last week’s posturing and half formed questions on beautiful lips. Essentially it was the story of the hunt for the driver. Young Andy Dixon certainly doesn’t look like your average murderer, but he witnessed the killing of drug lord Harvey Wratten and is the only clue to the puzzle either side, criminal or police, has thus far. Wratten’s nephew Jay, played by Rafe Spall, quizzes Dixon’s mother and pregnant girlfriend menacingly, whilst Ejiofor’s Gabriel interviews them for the police. A third side also emerges, in the form of a character that may or may not be called Gatehouse, played by Stephen Rea.
The characters of Jay and Gatehouse illustrate exactly why audiences are split over The Shadow Line. Both could either be interpreted as colourful villains wonderfully acted or caricatures being painfully over acted. I’m inclined to agree with a comment from “dwrmat” on The Guardian series blog with regards to Spall’s portrayal of Jay: “ Whenever he’s on-screen, I can’t make up my mind whether he’s very, very good or very, very bad, which is a little distracting.”
The same could be said of Rea’s performance, although I instinctively found his mysterious and enigmatic character intoxicating, despite some far from subtle dialogue (“What I’m about to tell you is the most important thing you’ll ever hear. Ever”). His technique of scaring the family and friends of the fugitive driver is subtle however, when compared to Jay’s. The mental nephew of the deceased half drowns a cat and threatens to kill an unborn child to extract promises of cooperation. Rea’s character intimidates via a shadowy knowingness to his words and muted manipulation of his interviewee’s fears.
The main mystery now is who is Gatehouse, and which side of the investigation does he fall under? But other strands of the plot rumble on. Christopher Eccleston’s Joseph Bede managed to appease another disgruntled drug lord who hadn’t been paid with some dazzling calculations and a promise of ten million back instead of one. He again insisted to other characters he was simply a front man, installed by recently murdered Harvey as innocent and legit cover. Last week though he seemed to be far more important than that and in charge of things, and this week he’s still making the big deals and having people report back now and then. Ejiofor’s Detective still has a bullet in his brain, his wife wants to try for babies again, and the bullet might yet kill him. Glickman, another vanished but presumably still alive drug lord, remains undiscovered. Could Gatehouse be Glickman? Or working for him? Or is he a corrupt cop or some other darker side of the law?
By focusing on developing these irresistible mysteries and zipping along at a gripping pace, the second episode of The Shadow Line upped its game and got me looking forward to next week.
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