Thursday, July 29, 2010

But It Raises the Blood Pressure

I wonder what it is to direct an action film. My wife being a theatre director, I have some small sense (very small, since I rarely watch her at work) of what is needed to coax a performance from an actor, or an ensemble performance from a group of actors. As a film enthusiast I have a shirtsleeve sense of pacing and shot composition, though clearly I understand far too little to direct anything myself.

But my sense is that a completely different skill set is required from the director of an action picture. It might even be a different job completely. Because these films rely (as the genre promises) upon action and are traditionally rife with special effects, interaction between people seems often less crucial than in a dramatic picture, and timing and pacing are largely reliant on the editing suite rather than on what occurs on the set. Budgets for action films seem much larger than with other kinds of pictures, and so the director must have the ability to deal with big money and much larger crews, and to have expertise with technical matters and with the many departments this entails. (The captain of an airplane still physically flies every other leg; but the captain of a cruise ship with a thousand employees probably never actually touches the controls. With a staff that large, the captain is busy keeping everyone else smoothly doing their jobs.)

I thought of this as I watched Phillip Noyce's latest big-budget picture, Salt. I found myself contrasting this film with, say, Julie and Julia as a kind of archetypal opposite number. Salt is a slight variation only on the established spy thriller genre, รก la James Bond or Jason Bourne. It's a case of a competent but inscrutable main character playing out a high-stakes game while bullets fly and cars crash. It's atypical to have a woman in this role, but certainly not unprecedented--think La femme Nikita. The key to the genre is less the sex of the protagonist than, for me, the strength of the story and (to a lesser degree) the believability of the premise.

The premise here--a very James Bond one--is that a program for world domination was put in place during the Cold War by the Soviets, and the program, after decades of gestation, is now suddenly coming to ripeness. As the film's previews make clear, Evelyn Salt is an American CIA operative who is mysteriously and unexpectedly accused by a Russian defector of being a double agent, and her attempts to clear herself are oblique and, like Jason Bourne, involve the use of an advanced suite of skills.

But back to my original thought: how much weight rests upon the key actors of a film like this? With Julie and Julia, actors of the caliber of Meryl Streep and Stanley Tucci are required because without strong characterizations you simply do not have a film. Julie and Julia is a story about characters, a stage play translated to the big screen. With an action picture like Salt, it feels as though the stars are important much more for looking hot and having "star power" than for their ability to convincingly portray another human being. Big budgets require big box office receipts, and so an Angelina Jolie or Bruce Willis or Will Smith are required to fill the seats. These are simply two different sets of imperatives, two different branches of the filmmaker's art.

Noyce has assembled a cast of thousands, but only a couple roles are not generic (and only Salt herself is even slightly original). Angelina Jolie is of course in the title role and veteran actor Liev Schreiber plays her partner at the CIA. Chiwetel Ejiofor (a new name to me) plays a bigwig with the NSA, the major source of heat in the film--much like Tommy Lee Jones's character in The Fugitive, though without Jones's iconic presence. But most of the film involves Evelyn Salt doing her thing alone and one or several others reacting to her actions. Angelina Jolie can't get around the need to perform with at least a modicum of verisimilitude, really, since she so often carries the story along on her own, but even then the genre allows her much more latitude since every single action sequence, even very short ones--almost every single scene in the film, really--is constructed from a hundred different camera shots and underpinned by an astoundingly loud and saturated soundtrack. I contrast this with Julie and Julia, where there are long scenes of two people interacting in a static setting and the little nuances between them are the whole banana. Jolie does have a few longer scenes here with some emotional charge, which she does a lovely job with, and there are scenes of quiet interaction, but these are exceptional. Mostly she's required to be blank and inscrutable (in this she reminds me so much of Jason Bourne, who also was not an especially verbal character), and even her emotional scenes feel a bit non-sequitur to me, like scenes included with some reluctance to humanize her character.

But if I were to lodge a protest, it would be against the flurry of camera tricks and editing employed to bring so many of the pivotal action scenes to life. An extreme use of wiggly-cam and rapid-fire flash editing keep us off balance (and, conveniently, keep actors from having to actually do the near-impossible feats they are seen to do), and with a picture like this we spend a good bit of our time in this epileptic-seizure-inducing condition. I suppose one simply can't make this kind of picture any other way, but more and more I find this approach diverts me but it doesn't particularly entertain me, much less thrill me.

Angelina Jolie is appropriately enigmatic here. Her character is written, of course, such that we have a difficult time knowing exactly who she is and where her loyalties lie. But she pulls this all off splendidly, running the gamut (like Bourne) from glamorously beautiful to battered and beaten. I was not necessarily predisposed to doubt her, but for a public figure so renowned for her physical beauty there is always the question of how one ages. Now at the ripe age of 35, and though still strikingly beautiful, Jolie is not to be mistaken for a 22-year-old, and the camera is close upon her face often during the film. And with the encroach of middle age she has taken on a certain hardness that suits her in this role of beautiful woman with the ability to seriously kick some ass.

The other actors are also fine, but I just don't have a sense of characterizations which could not have been assembled by an editor from 500 different shots, performances stitched together, Frankenstein-like, from scraps. In the end it just isn't a film about people; it's a film about action. Everything else is standard spy thriller boilerplate, if skilfully made. Our heroine is on the verge of being caught at every moment, escaping the hail of machine gun fire and hurtling SUVs by a hair's breadth. Most of the time.

And that's where I end up. I'm inclined to deflate any assessment of a movie a letter grade or two because of the limitations of the genre. I think a much better movie could have been made with far fewer action scenes, but it would have been a different movie.

But that's what I'd rather have seen.

Grade: B-


dbackdad said...

Good review. I liked the movie as well. Within its genre, it was exciting and unique enough to be entertaining. I'm a big Chiwetel Ejiofor fan. He seems to make anything he is in better (even 2012).

I might even muster a review in the next few days. You seem to have seen the same group of movies as me lately.

wunelle said...

I'll have to look for more Chiwetel Ejiofor. He's new to me (though I didn't see 2012). I bitch a bit about getting too old for big, action-y blockbusters, but it was an entertaining two hours.

dbackdad said...

Ejiofor's best work has been Children of Men, Serenity, and American Gangster.

wunelle said...

Ah. I did see the latter, but I don't remember the details. Not sure if I reviewed it or not; I'll have to go back and look (one key advantage for me of all these reviews is that I can quickly recall a film and what I thought of it at the time!).

shrimplate said...

We Saw Saly just today. I rather enjoyed the novelty of a female main character in such a film.