Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Monday, August 02, 2010

From Russia with Adamantium Cheekbones: SALT (2010)

I totally dig the idea of Soviet "sleeper" agents, second only to covert Satanic networks in their possible omnipresence. Think about it: any (or all) of your friends could be a Russian spy and neither of you even know it. You might be one and not even know it! One day you just go to get your shoe fixed and an old Russian shoe repair guy looks in your eyes, startled he quickly composes himself: "You want sole replaced? Fifteen Dollars. But the red star falls for three." You suddenly blank out and find yourself saying, "The hole is too big for that small an amount." He nods, reaches under the counter, and gives you a gun, which you accept without a word. Or wait, was it just a receipt for your deposit?

I know how it is. I'm a real-life sleeper agent, but for booze. The old Russian shoe repair guy would be any bartender in any bar; all I have to do is drink what everyone else is drinking and my trigger is pressed. If you ever 'activate' me, i.e. somehow get me to drink even one drink, I will turn into a Laurence Harvey after seeing the queen of hearts on the table in THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (1962) and receiving the overheard suggestion to jump in the Central Park duck pond. I'd become a black-out sleeper agent drinker of such catastrophic power that my bank account would be sucked down in a week and I'd vanish from the grid, leaving only a trail of empty bottles and unread ATM receipts. My intended target, programmed into my brain from birth? Myself.

There isn't a target in the world so ironically deserving.

Or is there?

Making the audience connect to such insanity is the goal of existentialist espionage pics like THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD or THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR, wherein working for any one side turns out to be a bad idea; all values are turned upside down and intimacy -- even with family members -- is always up for questioning. The good guy, your boss, is using you as a chess piece to get your own KGB mom killed by her own people.  The only way out is with humor, and that's why the best moments of SALT aren't so much the BOURNE or OCEAN'S twists as much as Evelyn's use of a taser to spur on the near-dead driver of a police vehicle while she's handcuffed in the seat behind him, or the no-nonsense way she goes about fulfilling tasks in the most direct, outside the box manner but carefully--as Jolie no doubt insisted--killing no one. Who's tasing who?

This Evelyn Salt falls into a long line of super spies that are fun to watch as they're usually a few steps ahead of the audience, which means we can relax and not worry about their safety: the J's Bourne and Bond are key examples, but based on the frequent use of SILENCE OF THE LAMBS framing (i.e. a close-up of a face, eyes staring right into the camera in the middle of the screen with dead space on either side of the frame) I'd say we're also supposed to think of Evelyn as 'Hannah Belle Lecter.' Is old Lecter just the true antecedent of these indestructible genius types? Not just, Clarice, what did they do to you in that Korean prison camp? Leon, What's the first thing that comes in to your mind when you think about... your mother?

It's now common pop mythos that the "super prowess" of these sleeper agents stems from their being trained from birth at a remote and clandestine spy school, usually in Russia, where it's cold and harsh and there is no mercy or child protective services, only vodka. Through this relentless training they master endurance, marksmanship, martial arts; they are fed cutting edge body-healing-enhancement drugs and so were their parents so they were already born gifted superhumans. This is all so it's more believable that girls with thin limbs can kick the shit out of bulked-up army men, SWAT guys, and street brawlers.

The idea that you can craft super soldiers if you get them early enough is something that's long been a staple of Hong Kong cinema, with many of its action stars coming out of the draconian Peking Opera School: the whole 'brutal training by a stern parent of instructor' thing often happens around the opening credits -- ala NAKED WEAPON or AZUMI or THE PRINCESS BLADE -- or comes in flashbacks, ala ELEKTRA (below), ALIAS, and KILL BILL.

It's implied rather sweetly through all this that women are man's natural superior, needing to absorb only our Wu Tang sacred men's club scriptures (ala Jade Fox in CROUCHING TIGER) in order to beat us at even the most violent of our manly figthin' games. In a way it's a kind of guilty payback to the woman at the center of this sort of film, who is in a man movie, a pawn avatar juggled between the fanboy writers and fanboy viewers. Men love to see themselves kicked around by hot bitches and I shudder with 1980s liberal arts major-Peking Opera-imbued shame to admit I'm no different. One look at that picture of Jennifer Garner as Elektra at left and I feel like I've already been kicked in the gut. That jawline! Those bangs! That straight long hair! Those perfect lips, good lord.

And then, to add to the 'believability' of a girl asskicker, it helps to bring in the Russians, or some 'Other' from far away.  In America we get an overall impression or Russia that's icy and bitter on all levels, unlimited vodka and fire being the only sources of warmth. No one is afraid of death there, because A) life sucks without American commodities and B) death's not scary when you're loaded on vodka.

Americans have only the sketchy concept of 'freedom' as an asset in lieu of all that fuzzy drunken tough guy stuff. And we all have been bred from birth to see Russian women as tall, red-headed and so ice cold ruthless they'll drain some balding Yankee schmuck they meet on the internet clean down to his penny stock portfolio and kick him to the curb before he can even finish typing "I'm wiring you $1800 for a plane ticket, my love! Can't wait to meet you in person!"

The vodka aspect of Russian superiority is not to be overlooked in the crafting of superb fighters, either: as the DRUNKEN MASTER (left) could teach you. To be drunk is not just to have courage, to be drunk is to be loose of limb, flexible, relaxed even in the middle of life or death stand-offs, able to survive falls from fifth story windows twice.  If you have the genes, alcohol even makes you more coordinated. I know! I have the genes. I am the sleeper agent from the Kung Fu school of Drunken Monkey Claw.

The advantage with being one of these super drunks is you can fall from the off-ramp onto a speeding truck below and not even be aware of anything but that you almost spilled your drink. Poor Angelina is not so lucky: she drinks only one or two shots of vodka so she can 'ahem' with the bottle; and yet--after numerous hits to the face--the only thing at all puffy is those bee-stung lips; her cheeks don't have a single bruise. Adamantine of bone, like Wolverine's, perhaps but worryingly fragile-looking nonetheless.

We're used to it by now, but still, in a weird masochistic voyeur way, we "feel" the pain of body blows much more keenly and sharply when they fall upon an older woman and Angelina has lost her baby fat almost everywhere but those lips. Banged around from her moving truck leap-frogging or ledge diving, we realize she's not Gia anymore; we suffer for her from the bumpy safety of her simulacrated womb. We're her alcohol; we absorb the pain and punishment like an audience of opiate tea bags. And with Jolie the pain stings extra because she has become thinner in bone and meat since tearing through those Laura Croft movies. I kept worrying she wasn't getting enough calcium. Her hips could cut glass. We're not looking at a buff young killer, no Russian gymnast with the Bond larynx-crushing thighs. We're looking at a woman facing the onset of osteoporosis.  

With foreign male action figures like Arnold Schwarzenegger it's different: buoyed by his puffy gym muscles, Arnie hath bore no children from his womb but rather bones made hard from large amounts of amino acid and milkshakes as a German youth, and estrogen en absentia. Plus he's a bad enough actor (in a good way) that the more he strains to look hurt the less we believe him, thus cutting the masochistic chord and filling us with good cheer. Jolie makes her pain tangible if fleeting, eyes dilating with tears, and occasionally ennui. I still have sympathy splints from watching her run in those high leather shoes.

SALT's biggest drawback isn't its lack of originality--that it seems like it was made after screenwriter Kurt Wimmer (the poet who brought us ULTRAVIOLET) watched ALIAS and fell in love with the way Jennifer Garner changes wigs dozens of times per episode, then forgot all the other things that makes that show good (for the first four seasons). For one thing, this is one film foolish enough to think we still care about averting yet another abstract threat like nuclear meltdown. By now there have been so many nuclear near-misses in action films that we just want to see one bomb go off for a change, just to see what would happen. We'd care more about, say, the life of a single puppy or child, someone we could see up close and worry over.

The first half of SALT has some ambiguity that holds the attention--is she good or bad? And is there a good or bad side anymore? --but in the end we just don't care which side Salt's really on as the nuclear threat plot is trotted forth, and is so dusty at this point even the president seems like he's forgotten where ye auld Def Con Red button is. Nuclear war now has an almost nostalgic twinkle about it: we never did get to have that mushroom cloud senior prom moment back in the existential days of the Cold War. All those decades of tense nuclear posturing were just a tease. Now we just have very old bombs lying all over the place -- vintage nukes. Isn't it kind of a waste? Kind of un-American when you think about it? Let's press that button, Mr. President, for old time's sake, for the Gipper and for that most American of reasons, why we come to films like SALT in the first place, escape from boredom.

Thusly, with a romantic impetus as hackneyed as one of Leo's recent slew of dead wives, and no clear cut person to root for, you can only wince.. and wince again as Jolie falls two stories to land on her hip bones on a hard metallic surface, or grabs onto sharp metal elevator shaft corners by her delicate fingernails, then gets up and runs off, unscathed, onwards--ever onwards--her wig not even crooked, just pleasantly grayed with the dust of an exploded mid-town landmark. Maybe she's born with it. Maybe it's L'Oreal.

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