My parents have a floor to ceiling bookshelf occupying an entire wall in their living room. Mingled with the literary classics are novels by Tom Clancy (Jack Ryan series), Robert Ludlum (Jason Bourne series), and possibly every single Science Fiction novel ever written. During summers between college, I’d browse the selection intending to snag classics required for the next semester’s coursework, but instead read William Gibson, Octavia Butler, Ludlum, and of course, Tom Clancy. While my own literary tastes favor YA fiction and works by writers on the margins, I find spy novels irresistible. Earlier this year when I blogged about my disappointment regarding the decision to cast Chris Pine as CIA analyst Jack Ryan in the upcoming franchise reboot I wondered when Hollywood might move beyond its tendency to view casting younger white males as vital in its never-ending quest to reinvigorating moldy franchises or film genres.
Hollywood has a well established history of ineptitude as it relates to balancing the wishes of fans with the desire for strong box office numbers. Producers would be wise to create entertainment, which privileges preservation of source material or genre conventions over profit concerns, as many of these films enjoy tremendous success at the box office. (Lord of the Rings, Twilight and Bourne film franchises are good examples.) Overemphasis on profit margins and desperation for broad audience appeal often leads to ill-advised casting choices, public outcry and oddly enough, disappointing box office revenues.
Maybe Hollywood got the message this time. Clocking in at a taut 100 minutes, Salt packs plenty of intrigue, beloved spy thriller tropes and ass kicking stunts into its modest running time. Director Phillip Noyce (The Bone Collector) keeps things moving with an engaging lead, well-timed action sequences, smart dialogue and characters whose motivations are well defined. Salt combines elements of The Sum of All Fears’ plot with the “disavowed spy on the run” trope seen in films such Sydney Pollack’s 1975 classic Three Days of the Condor and 1996’s Mission: Impossible. While hardly inventive, Salt’s plot twists and reveals are entertaining and the action sequences do not belabor the point. Much has been made of director Phillip Noyce’s gender casting switch, complete with misogynistic framing suggesting Salt is Jolie struggling to wear Tom Cruise’s cast offs (Cruise passed on the role). This framing is disingenuous bullshit.
For instance, Evelyn Salt and Jason Bourne share few similarities, most notably their choice in employment. Besides, Bourne—as played by Matt Damon—seems jovial when compared to the no-nonsense Salt. If Evelyn Salt reminds audiences of other cinematic characters, most likely they are ones played by Jolie herself. (Lara Croft, Mrs. Smith, Kate “Acid-Burn” Libby) If Salt proves successful at the box office, instead of opting for the time honored tradition of shopping around projects until the producers feel they have no choice but to cast a D-list male actor or an unknown, perhaps Hollywood might tap into its wealth of female actors who have seen their big screen opportunities all but vanish.