In 2007, screenwriter Kurt Wimmer, best known at that time for movies like Equilibrium and Ultraviolet, sold a script to Columbia Pictures for a movie titled The Far-Reaching Philosophy of Edwin A. Salt. The film, which would eventually see its name shortened to Salt, initially caught the eye of one Tom Cruise. He was, of course, still one of the biggest stars on the planet at the time, and was considered the ideal actor to launch a new potential action franchise with. After a year of negotiations between Cruise and Columbia, he eventually turned down the role because he worried that the character was too close to his role in the still-ongoing Mission: Impossible series. So Amy Pascal, then the chief executive at Columbia, did something that basically never happens in Hollywood: she decided to change the lead role from male to female.
Enter Angelina Jolie.
Edwin became Evelyn Salt and soon one of the most famous actresses on the planet had an opportunity to become the kind of action star that women were seldom afforded the opportunity to be. Remarkably, little of the script itself changed beyond that, and the end result, which was released 10 years ago, is a total blast of a movie.
Evelyn Salt is a CIA operative who is accused of being a Russian sleeper agent and forced to go on the run from her colleagues while she investigates the tangled web of secrets and the disappearance of her beloved husband. As her past is revealed, Salt's loyalties become ever-tougher to nail down, and her actions could set off World War Three.
Even in the current blockbuster age of superheroes and high-concept franchises, women-fronted action films are greatly outnumbered by those of men. Change is happening, with some recent examples including Gina Rodriguez in Miss Bala, Rey and Jyn Erso of Star Wars fame, Charlize Theron's evolution into a beat-em-up queen, and, of course, Captain Marvel and Wonder Woman. It's led to some great films with real stylistic flair that have allowed for a striking mixture of old-school violence and feminine aesthetics previously unseen in the genre. Think of the neon riot girl world of Birds of Prey or the slick sultry underground of Atomic Blonde, complete with bisexual lighting.
Salt feels like the outlier in this field mostly because it ignores its protagonist's femaleness in favor of a gender-blind approach. That has its upsides. It's a strident reminder that Hollywood, when it bothers to try, can move away from its increasingly archaic default mode of entertainment and, with the smallest of changes, shake up the system. The protagonist is quick-thinking, a dedicated wife, excellent at her job, and skilled in ways that make her gender feel secondary, yet the mere fact that we're seeing a heroine in this a manner is invigorating. If Salt can be a woman, why can't Ethan Hunt or Jason Bourne? Hell, it's radical if only to see a character's husband be the damsel for a change rather than yet another woman stuck in the role of spouse-for-sacrifice (said hubby, played by August Diehl, is also just an adorable doting spider expert).
A downside to this approach is the female exceptionalism that is placed on Jolie's shoulders. She is the only named female character in this movie, which does highlight the immense sausage fest that is American power but it's still disappointing. This sort of blind casting and storytelling relies heavily on ignoring the specific traits that gender in all its forms brings to our lives. The tough action stuff is coded as masculine and that's that. There is something to be said for seeing something written to be so stereotypically male, in whatever form that actually takes, given to an actress who then reveals just how bulls**t those constraints are. What's inherently manly about this sort of genre or the archetypal hero that stands at its forefront? It's also shockingly refreshing to see Jolie filmed in these scenes like a regular human being and not a fighting sex doll, as is often dishearteningly the case for most women in the genre.
Watching Salt, you're struck by just how effing good Jolie is in this role. Jolie has always been a fascinating on-screen presence, equal parts regal and ferocious. She was the original bad girl of late-'90s Hollywood, the tattooed vixen who seemed forever on a knife's edge and infamously wore a vial of Billy Bob Thornton's blood around her neck. Eventually, she evolved into one of the great enigmatic stars of the century: a dedicated philanthropist, one half of a now-legendary power couple, a family-friendly Disney queen, and, of course, Lara f**king Croft. Overall, however, Jolie's acting career has greatly been overshadowed by her celebrity, so reminders of just how magnetic and versatile she can be in the right roles are always welcome.
As Evelyn Salt, she demonstrates immense physicality, selling both the death-defying stunts as well as the quietness of a woman used to blending into the background. In one scene, while disguised as a man, you can see the way that Jolie adjusts her gait to match that of a distinguished general who's used to dominating every room he walks into. What Jolie excels at in the role is in developing the ambiguity of Evelyn herself. Her loyalties seem to toss and turn with the tides in ways that traditional Hollywood heroes are seldom able to do. It's tough to imagine Tom Cruise being as slyly unnerving or tricky to decipher as Jolie is with this material.
Is Salt a ridiculous movie? Oh hell yes. Its plot is ludicrous in the way that the best action movies are (who the hell wants a Mission: Impossible film to make sense?). What it functions as most effectively is a star vehicle for a great actress who, if she'd gotten the treatment she deserved, could have been the new James Bond-style action icon we so desperately craved. Indeed, it could be argued that Jolie's Evelyn Salt is as close as we've gotten to a real modern heir to 007: a savvy spy of international prowess whose curious moral center continues to intrigue. Sadly, we never got more of Salt. Despite making close to three times its budget back, the movie never got a sequel that there was so much potential for and Jolie stayed away from the genre for the most part, although she does have Marvel's The Eternals on the horizon to return to action fun. In a post-Furiosa world, perhaps it's time to let Jolie reclaim her crown.