Pam Grier walks into a bar. Sounds like the beginning of a joke, but it’s actually the setup for one of the great fight scenes of the 1970s.
Grier played the title character in 1974’s Foxy Brown, a woman who poses as a high-end escort to get revenge on the gangsters who killed her G-Man boyfriend. When her undercover work brings her to a seedy bar, she confronts Bobbie, a tough-talking patron (played by Jeannie Epper who was also Lynda Carter’s stunt double on Wonder Woman).
“Listen, skinny,” says Bobbie, “before you start talking tough, I better warn you. I got a black belt in karate. So why don’t you get out of here quietly, while you still have some teeth left in that ugly face?”
Before you can say, “You go, girl,” Foxy clobbers Bobbie with a wooden stool, slamming her in the face then shattering it across her back.
“And I got my black belt in bar stools!” says Foxy.
Grier could deliver a line and a punch, attributes that allowed her to cut a swathe in the male-dominated action movie market of the 1970s.
This weekend Scarlett Johansson adds to Grier’s kick- butt legacy on the big screen with Lucy, an all-out actioner about a woman who becomes a superhuman when a drug allows her to use 100 per cent of her brain capacity. “I’m able to do things I’ve never done before,” she says. “I feel everything and can control the elements around me.”
Johansson joins a list of dangerous distaff action stars like Michelle Yeoh (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), Jenette Goldstein (Aliens), Angelina Jolie (Wanted, Salt, Mr. & Mrs. Smith, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider) and Uma Thurman (Kill Bill, Parts 1 & 2) who have given Schwarzenegger and Stallone a run for their money.
Perhaps the wildest female action movie of all time is 1965’s “ode to female violence,” Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! starring Tura Satana as the thrill-seeking go-go dancer Varla.
Experienced in martial arts, Satana did her own stunts and brought her unique style — black leather gloves, Germaine Monteil eyeliner and layers of Max Factor pancake makeup — to the film. She even supplied some of the movie’s most memorable lines.
When a gas station attendant ogles her cleavage while extolling the virtues of being on the open road and seeing America, Satana ad libbed, “You won’t find it down there, Columbus!”
Time critic Richard Corliss called Satana’s performance “the most honest, maybe the one honest portrayal in the [director Russ] Meyer canon and certainly the scariest.”
“I took a lot of my anger that had been stored inside of me for many years and let it loose,” Satana said of her most famous role.
“I helped to create the character Varla and helped to make her someone that many women would love to be like.”
Movies don’t come more “ripped from the headlines” than “Salt.” The story of a sleeper agent living in the United States unfolded in real life recently but wasn’t nearly as exciting or as silly as its on-screen counterpart.
When we first meet Evelyn Salt (Angelina Jolie) she is an American hero after surviving a brutal interment in North Korea. “Do you know what she’s done for her country?” asks her boss (Liev Schrieber). Actually we don’t, but she did have a nasty black eye when she was rescued. She’s married to Michael Krause—the world’s leading arachnologist—and is happily riding a desk at an undercover CIA office in Washington. Everything suddenly changes one day, however, when a Russian defector named Orlov (Daniel Olbrychski) shows up with a wild tale of a sleeper agent named Evelyn Salt who is going to assassinate the Russian president in order to trigger a war. Accused, she makes a run for it—searching for her husband and the truth.
“Salt” has a Cold War inspired plot that even James Bond creator Ian Fleming, no stranger to elaborate plot musings—he once created a villain who killed his victims with liquid gold—would have rejected as over-the-top.
Logic flies out the window early on, leaving room only for outlandish plot turns unlikely twists and an ending that can only be described as preposterous.
That said, “Salt” is a lot of fun but it’s not a story that will hold up to a great deal of scrutiny. Hitchcock would have referred to it as a refrigerator movie. It seems to (mostly) make sense while you are watching it, but later, when you are home in front of the fridge making a snack and thinking about the film you realize it doesn’t hold up. But that’s OK when the action is as relentlessly paced and fun as Phillip Noyce delivers here. The escalation from accused spy to fugitive happens very quickly—it’s exaggerated—but once the action starts it covers for the trite dialogue—”You’re not safe with me!”—and silly plotting.
The part of Evelyn Salt was originally written for Tom Cruise, who eventually walked away because he felt the story too closely resembled his “Mission Impossible” movies. Good thing too. Cruise would have brought his usual hero persona along with him, taking away some of the down-and-dirty pleasure of the film. Besides it’s way more fun to see Angelina Jolie jump from building to building and use dead guys as a silencer for her gun. Cruise would have insisted on less good-or-evil ambiguity. Jolie oozes bad girl vibes and it works very well here. As Evelyn she’s two parts bombshell, one part “MacGyver” and all badass. She has more lives than Felix the Cat, but that’s all part of the fun.
Less than fun is the end of the movie. There will be no spoilers here, but the preposterous finale makes me think that a.) it was written to set “Salt” up for a sequel—can “Salt and Pepper” be far behind? or b.) Noyce didn’t know how to end it and went for the easiest and least logical way out.
“Salt” is silly fun. A summer spy romp that works as an action film but doesn’t bear up to scrutiny.