Saturday, February 19, 2011

Running order

There is not much to be said about a vigorous pot-boiler like Salt (2010). Briskly directed by ultra-professional Phillip Noyce and edited to within an inch of its life by Stuart Baird and John Gilroy, it is a machine designed to relentlessly divert for 95 minutes, and performs its function efficiently. Certainly, much of it doesn't make sense and it makes total hash of Newtonian physics, but that's not what you go to the movies for, is it?

Jolie has already demonstrated on a number of occasions that she is as effective an action film lead as any of her male competitors -- more than most, since Bruce Willis, Harrison Ford and that cohort are now eligible for Social Security. So that is hardly breaking news. And the era of CGI has rather spoiled the pleasure we take in big outrageous stunts. Apparently, a number of Jolie's best gags, such as leaping between the tops of moving tractor-trailers was done on location -- with safety lines and precautions -- but done in real places, not a greenscreen stage. Nonetheless, it hardly matters, since we never know if we can believe what we see, and therefore reflexively disbelieve, which is destructive to the entire action film genre.

What CGI can't fake is the performer's natural speed and grace. Here Jolie has it. There is a moment early in the third act (and this film practically announces each act with a flourish of trumpets and tap-dancing usherettes) in which Jolie, now dressed in a flattering white shirt and dress slacks is only required to run down a hall very fast. For me, that was as entertaining as anything in the movie, and not for any salacious reasons. She is fully dressed, and nothing is moving in any sort of suggestive way. She is just flat-out running like an athlete (albeit an athlete who is trying to prevent an international incident) and she looks terrific. An action hero needs a good run. Fairbanks and Flynn had it. Buster Keaton and Jackie Chan run wonderfully. Burt Lancaster ran like a god, as he did almost everything. This harkens back to the simplest atavistic pleasures of motion pictures, being able to study bodies in motion, and it just may trump all the explosions and shoot-outs which so liberally lace a movie-movie like Salt.

That's why I recommend action film fans seek out the series that began with District B13 a.k.a. Banlieue 13, the parkour films from France. Yes, there is a cool near-future narrative frame and there is a political skew that is sadly missing from so many action films. But mostly there are a number of people doing things on film that look as though they are impossible, and yet they are actually executed for the camera, real time, real space.

Now if you are a reasonably sophisticated filmgoer, you will figure that the fight scene which begins at about the 4:00 mark in this clip involves a lot of wire work. I urge you, don't just stream this from Netflix. Get your hands on the disc and look at the special features, which has some camcorder video of the rehearsals of that fight. There are no wires. There are tremendous acrobats and athletes operating at their best.

Perhaps it is not that we crave narrative, but that we are seeking conflict, tension and resolution. Narrative provides that in a safe, comfortable way, but as former hunter-gatherers only lately out of the cave, we are just as happy with physical conflict. A few million women who become grass widows every Sunday afternoon in the fall would probably agree with me.

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