Monday, November 5, 2012

An Action-Packed Angelina Day

A while back, a friend and I decided to do a comic book themed movie night, and among the movies on the table that night were Wanted and Salt. (Yes, I know this latter one isn’t actually based on a comic book, but it felt in line enough with the other movies we’d selected to seem appropriate, plus it helped even out the balance of male protagonists versus female protagonists just a little bit.) We didn’t have time for these two movies (and I suspect my friend, being not much of a fan of Angelina Jolie, did not have them high on her list) but with my cable and Internet out for a couple of days due to Hurricane Sandy, I decided to finally watch these two DVDs. The basic plot of each, along with my thoughts on the movie, is below.


Basic plot: Wesley Gibbons (James McAvoy) hates his life: his low-level job with a terrible supervisor, his dwindling bank account, his cheating girlfriend, and his best friend who is party to this affair all leave him feeling used and useless. But this all changes when a routine trip to the pharmacy ends up becoming a gun fight between a Cross (Thomas Kretschmann), a man trying to kill him and Fox (Angelina Jolie), a woman trying to save him. After a narrow escape, Fox takes Wesley to meet Sloan (Morgan Freeman) who explains the situation: Wesley is the son of an assassin for an organization known as the Fraternity. Wesley’s father has in turn been assassinated when Cross left the Fraternity and went rogue. Now it is up to Wesley to train to become a world-class assassin as well and revenge his father’s death by going after Cross.

There was just way too much violence, obscenity, and sexuality in this movie for me. As I’ve probably mentioned before, I’m not a prude but I want a story and/or fleshed-out characterizations, not just gratuitous examples of the above. There’s a twist near the end of Wanted that makes the plot a bit more interesting but it’s kind of a case of too little too late. Like many action movies, there’s a lot of ridiculousness in terms of completely unbelievable scenarios – i.e., the hero of the film can single-handedly take out a room fill of armed enemies without getting a scratch, or the hero is shot multiple times but miraculously heals within hours to fight back again. This movie ups the ante but defying gravity with bullets that shoot out of guns on a curved angle instead of straight and cars that flip over gracefully without missing a beat or harming a single passenger. It also features Jolie’s character in heels and a dress in the first fight scene, which is such a you-got-to-be-kidding-me moment (but sadly not that unusual for many action flicks). Later, she’s more appropriately dressed for the most part although she’s still sometimes seen roaming around in cutoff tees.

There’s very little in terms of characterizations to make any character feel realistic in any sense. Fox is given a bit of a back story that helps explains her and her motivations, but nearly everyone else has no history. Indeed, many members of the Fraternity remain completely nameless while others are simply known by code names such as “The Repairman” and “The Gunsmith.” Even though he is the main character, Wesley does not have much in terms of a full range of characterization either. His motivations to join the Fraternity are pretty slim: He’s unhappy with his current life of being metaphorically kicked around and punched in the face so he goes into a new life of literally being kicked around and punched in the face??? Clearly, that’s a very logical step in the right direction. Wesley’s motivation largely comes from this fixation of becoming like his father and a belief that living in his father’s footsteps is his destiny. This is despite the fact that his father abandoned Wesley when he was just an infant, which wouldn’t seem endear a lot of familial pride for many.

The mystery here is how such talented actors as Angelina Jolie, James McAvoy, and Morgan Freeman were all convinced to make such a shoddy movie. I give props to the film’s creators for being able to snag such a great cast, finding a suitable soundtrack, and using some impressive visual effects. But sadly those ingredients alone aren’t enough to make a good movie. Still, I suppose the movie’s creators must have been doing something right for they obviously made enough profit that they are considering making a Wanted 2.


Basic plot: Evelyn Salt (Angelina Jolie) is a CIA operative having just another day at work when she goes in to interview a man who claims to be a Russian defector. He tells her a story about a plot for a Russian double agent to assassinate the Russian president while he is on U.S. soil, thus creating conflict between the United States and Russia. He then names the Russian double agent: Evelyn Salt. Salt finds herself being held for questioning, worried about her own future as well as the safety as her husband. She escapes custody and while on the lam engages in a series of events that leaves the audience questioning whether she really is a double agent and where her allegiances lie.

Compared to Wanted, this was a much better movie. There’s still a lot of violence and more action (versus plot) than I generally care for, but there was enough of a story and a mystery (along with characterization, motivation, etc.) to keep it interesting. While it’s not as stylized and heavy on effects as Wanted, the cinematography and visuals are still well done and even at times quite lovely. Like Wanted, it has a good soundtrack that appropriately fits the movie. And, it’s less of a mystery why Jolie took this part, as it allows her to really show off her acting chops. The other actors – particularly Liev Schreiber and Chiwetel Ejiofor as Salt’s CIA co-workers – all do excellent work as well.

One thing I had found interesting about this movie from the outset is that the role of Salt was originally written for Tom Cruise, who was unavailable for filming, thus opening up the role for Jolie instead. So, long before I watched this movie I had been interested to see how a role created for a man became one for a woman and whether this would get us any closer to gender equality in Hollywood representations. For starters, I can say that this movie features a lot less of the running around in tight dresses and heels like other action films with female leads tend to do. Unlike other action films starring Jolie (i.e., Wanted, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider), the obligatory scene of her character coming out the shower was also not present in this movie, providing a breath of fresh air. All in all, there’s nothing about Salt’s character that makes her feel like a stereotypically overly feminine character - or like a character everyone has to point out is atypically tough “for a woman.” Instead, she is just a character that poses a threat for various concerned groups while they are doing their best to try and stay one step ahead of her. This is a movie I would recommend if you are interested in strong female leads, action movies with actual plots and characterizations, and/or a good mystery to try and crack.

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