Oh, what a tangled web we weave if only to deceive. What better way to celebrate this week’s wide release of Atomic Blonde than to honor the lady spies of the silver screen. While most of these femme fatales are modern in their respective incarnations, Kyle and Ben chose five films that they think are excellent showcases of powerful female characters in the male dominated genre of spy films.
BEN: It’s hard to believe that Philip Noyce’s Salt was released to unassuming audiences just 7 years ago. And yet, Angeline Jolie proved once again that she could kick ass and take names. Noyce, who directed Harrison Ford to success as Jack Ryan in Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger used the same steel and grit here to tell the story of a supposed Russian sleeper agent on the lamb to clear her name. The cast and the crew are a veritable who’s who of names, but the hero here is the uncredited Brian Helgeland who reworked the script for Jolie. The role was originally written as a male and a Tom Cruise vehicle. When they reworked the character and Jolie stepped into the role, Helgeland did a re-write to whip it in to shape. Robert Elswit’s cinematography is a highlight in this globetrotting adventure and action editors Stuart Baird and John Gilroy really stepped it up in crafting a unique tale of intrigue.
KYLE: I think my favorite part about this one is how all of the players within the universe of the film are terrified of Jolie’s Salt. While the script was reworked for a female lead, I feel that in the context of a spy microcosm, Jolie’s character is treated as an equal. Aside from the subject matter having a not intended relevance to today’s headlines, it was nice to see a post-cold war action story with some thrills and albeit telegraphed surprises. Jolie really is the whole picture, and this is one of her best roles, balancing the physicality of the action with the uncertainty of her character, with her ethos falling into question and it’s remarkable to see.
Point of No Return
BEN: Absolutely amazing stuff, Kyle. Jolie got us started with a bang. Now it’s time to turn our attention to John Badham’s spectacular Point of No Return. Bridgett Fonda electrifies the screen as another agent on the lamb after her death is faked. The interesting twist here is her origins. They are almost superhero in their quality. Gabriel Byrne who made an appearance last week is back this week as her handler, Bob. He is as smooth as she is. Harvey Keitel is his usual bad-ass as the ‘cleaner’. Audiences will be familiar with this film’s European origins as a reimaging of Luc Besson’s La Femme Nikkita.
KYLE: Let’s not forget the amazing Anne Bancroft as Fonda’s etiquette trainer. The training sequence is amazing, so much so that the actual espionage parts suffer, but Fonda carries the uneven script through to the end. I also love the origin story and watching Fonda’s transformation. While she becomes the ultimate operative, her street level beginnings pulse everywhere throughout the remainder of the film and it is her origins that ultimately define the character.
BEN: The next movie on our list, Spy, has a lot of heart, something Paul Feig and Melissa McCarthy delivered in spades. It isn’t your typical spy movie and the comedy plays well to the film’s action pieces. McCarthy is a CIA desk jockey who dreams of being able to save the day when her agent is gunned down during a mission. The assailant is off camera, but she is adept enough at following the clues that she pieces together what happens and feels the need to vindicate her partner and herself. This leads to bureaucracy and a hilarious pissing contest with Jason Statham. A mix of James Bond and Inspector Clouseau, the cinematography here is breathtaking as are the action pieces.
KYLE: This is easily my favorite teaming of Feig and McCarthy. As always, McCarthy’s performance is a profanity laced fireball, but it works so perfectly in this film. Her chemistry with Byrne and Statham is palpable and I loved how it paid tribute to spy films of the past, but also was its own story, using Feig’s vulgarity to both inject irreverence into the action and bridge the gap of vintage tradecraft with modern technology. Feig’s humor can be hit or miss at times, but I was genuinely shocked at how funny this film is. It’s terrific, and as you mention, Statham’s performance is comedic perfection!
Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow
BEN: We seem to have found our rhythm, Kyle. Our second film this week to feature Angelina Jolie is Kerry Conran’s underappreciated Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. A technical marvel in its own right, I could spend hours talking about its use of CG to blend a living world with the performances. Without intending it, Jude Law also makes his second appearance in our list. Set in 1939, with WWII raging on, Sky Captain (Law) commands a private air force while Gwyneth Paltrow plays the spunky reporter, Polly Perkins as they battle the robots of the mysterious Dr. Totenkopf, posthumously played by Sir Laurence Olivier. Jolie has an extended cameo as the commander of the Royal Fleet. This film’s spy themes fit more in line with the time it is set in rather than the actions of the characters, but both Jolie and Paltrow’s character display tactical prowess and undeniable courage throughout.
KYLE: This is probably the most controversial choice off the list and I’m glad we chose to include. The film is a loving homage to the serials of the 30’s while using CGI to enhance the story, not overwhelm it. This is one of a handful of films that was done entirely in the digital realm with green screens and seeing the final product shows that not only can heavy CGI films be done well, the medium can be used to transport the viewer to another reality. Paltrow’s Polly is about what you would expect for a story such as this, but she does remarkably well with the material. Jolie’s Franky is easily the best part. Aside from being a strong presence whenever on screen, Jolie’s preparation for the role bears mentioning. Even though Jolie only shot for a handful of days, she conducted several prolonged interviews with real pilots to ensure she had their terminology correct. The off screen dedication paid off, with Jolie nearly stealing the show in every one of her (regrettably) few scenes.
The Long Kiss Goodnight
BEN: Our final film is what I consider the Gold Standard of modern femme fatales: Renny Harlin’s The Long Kiss Goodnight. Written by Shane Black (Predator, The Nice Guys), Goodnight features Geena Davis, who has never really had a big screen presence, but when you see her she just lights the screen up. Set in rural New England, we learn that housewife Samantha is not all she appears to be. Through flashbacks, we learn about her past, which is covered up by a low grade form of amnesia. She hires Mitch Hennessey, a foul-mouthed private dick to solve the mystery. An accident brings Charlie to the surface and brings Timothy (Craig Bierko) on to their tails. A stunning supporting cast including Brian Cox, David Morse (who saw a brief comeback after this film) and Patrick Malahide, the husband-wife team of Harlin and Davis worked wonders. I was in college when this film came out and I just could not wait to see it. The trailers didn’t disappoint. The ice and the blood glistened in a land of snow and fire – lots of action, lots of laughs; this film is what audiences wanted in an action flick at the time it was made.
KYLE: This movie is ridiculous and I love it! Davis’ Charlie Baltimore is iconic from the first second she appears, forever vanquishing her quiet housewife persona to oblivion. Davis and Jackson’s chemistry is off the charts, and it’s rare to see Jackson in a straight up sexual scene and he does remarkably well and allows Davis to remain in the focus throughout. It’s easy, in an action film, to let the lead be invincible and over the top. Davis lives in her character’s flaws, using them to fuel her hatred for those who wronged her Charlie. Everything builds like a fuse heading into the over the top finale in which a torrent of blood and bullets blaze across the screen, allowing Davis’s assassin to unleash the rage that has been roiling under the surface. This is one of Harlin’s best as well. He’s very focused in this film and it shows in almost every scene.
BEN: This was a blast, Kyle. Next week, we will look at five of Katherine Bigelow’s top films as we prepare for her new film, Detroit.
KYLE: I can’t wait!