10 of the Most Kick-Ass Women in Film
We’ve still got a long way to go before we reach true gender equality in the movies. The famed Bechdel test aside, nowhere is the schism more prevalent than it is in big-budget action movies. Studios have been reticent to front female-driven superhero movies, claiming that they tend to underperform at the box office. (Think the Jennifer Garner vehicle, Elektra, or Halle Berry‘s disastrous Catwoman.)
Female-fronted films have been hits in the past, and they will be again in the future; a year ago, Frozen proved just how lucrative girl power is at the box office. And the pendulum continues its shift: Recently, Scarlett Johansson seems to be looking for a corner on the market in the action genre, given her turn last year in Lucy, her continuing role as Black Widow in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and the fact that she’s been recently cast as the lead in a live-action remake of Ghost in the Shell. On the sci-fi side of things, Zoe Saldana is asserting dominance, with her roles in the Star Trek, Avatar and Guardians of the Galaxy franchises.
While it’s true that Jennifer Lawrence‘s turn in The Hunger Games seems to be the exception, rather than the rule, prominent action roles for women – where they are treated as equal to the men, and not just as damsels in distress – have been out there, and have come a long way since the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone ruled in the 1980s. This month, Salma Hayek will give it a shot in Everly. (Check her out in the trailer below.)
Solid action roles for women – where they are equal to the men, and not just damsels in distress – do exist. Here are ten examples in modern cinema, in no particular order.
The Bride and her yellow tracksuit have become iconic. And it’s easy to see why. One by one, each member of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad falls before her on her single-minded quest to bring the titular Bill to justice. Director Quentin Tarantino wrote the Bride for Uma Thurman after they worked together on Pulp Fiction and, indeed, it is nearly impossible to imagine anyone else in the role.
The scene to watch for: The Bride takes on Gogo Yubari and all the members of the Crazy 88 in the House of Blue Leaves. One blade, so much havoc.
Admittedly, the best action sequence in director Joe Wright‘s Hanna belongs to Eric Bana (in an impressive single-take fight scene in a subway station), but Saoirse Ronan is no slouch in the title role…a part that is all the more remarkable given her age. (She was only sixteen when the film was shot.)
The scene to watch for: Early in the film, Hanna escapes from CIA custody to the thumping beats of the Chemical Brothers.
The transformation of Hamilton’s Sarah Connor from 1984‘s The Terminator to 1991‘s Terminator 2: Judgment Day is nothing less than astonishing. Gone is the damsel in distress of the first film, hardened by her knowledge of the future into a killing machine able to go toe-to-toe with Arnold Schwarzenegger’s T-800 and Robert Patrick‘s implacable T-1000 in a single-minded quest to keep her son alive.
The scene to watch for: The freeway chase, where the T-1000 pursues our heroes in a helicopter in a sequence so dangerous, director James Cameron had to shoot it himself because his camera operator refused. The Terminator drives, and it’s Sarah who trades bullets with their assailant.
Alien is a straight-up horror movie. In Aliens, however, Sigourney Weaver gets to go full-on action hero, battling not just one of the nightmarish creatures, but a whole brood. Along the way, she blazes a trail for a myriad of women in action to come.
The scene to watch for: The iconic final fight, and Ripley’s venomous line that has justifiably become immortal.
The scene to watch for: The freeway chase is a ten-minute sequence that took three months to shoot and destroyed over three hundred cars. Trinity gets to show off some sick motorcycle skills in one of the most ambitious and eye-raising vehicle chase sequences ever filmed.
Kurylenko’s mute assassin, Etain, is far more deadly than any male character in director Neil Marshall‘s ancient Roman epic. And she’s all the scarier for her lack of lines: Kurylenko masterfully oozes menace through her every move. (A bonus note: Marshall also directed The Descent, a horror movie not only headed by six butt-kicking females, but nearly not featuring any male characters at all.)
The scene to watch for: The captured General Virilus (Dominic West) is made to duel one-on-one with Etain. The battle does not go well for one of them…
Super spy James Bond is arguably one of the most misogynistic characters in all of film, so it’s a real breath of fresh air when Asian superstar Michelle Yeoh’s Wai Lin gets to appear in Pierce Brosnan‘s second 007 outing as not just another “Bond girl”, but an equal, fully capable of kicking just as much enemy butt as the hero.
The scene to watch for: Handcuffed together, Wai Lin, and Bond must work together to dispatch the bad guys… and escape… on a motorcycle.
Angelina Jolie in Mr. & Mrs. Smith, Wanted, and Salt
Okay, this is a cheat, but Angelina Jolie has indisputably been the action heroine of the twenty-first century. In Mr. & Mrs. Smith, not only do she and her future hubby, Brad Pitt, play competing (and married) secret agents, but for much of the film Mrs. Smith is decidedly a step ahead of her other half. As Fox, the highly-trained member of a secret league of assassins, Jolie spends much of the first half of Wanted protecting and training James McAvoy‘s Wesley, ostensibly making him the damsel in distress. And for Salt, not only does Jolie prove that a woman can be just as convincing as a man in an action film, she actually assumed a title role that was intended for fellow superstar Tom Cruise.
The scenes to watch for: With their respective cats out of the bag, Mr. & Mrs. Smith trash an entire house while trying to kill/love each other. In Wanted, Fox is the star of a truly gonzo car chase that is an eye-opener for Wesley in more ways than one. And speaking of car chases, the hard-hitting, vehicle-crunching sequence in Salt is definitely worth a look.
Director Steven Soderbergh‘s hard-hitting action film is arguably one of the most ass-kicking outlets for a woman in years. It helps that former MMA fighter Gina Carano is easily the one woman on this list most likely to be able to take out darn near anybody in real life. In the film, her Mallory Kane finds people trying to kill her on all sides, but she’ll bust more than her fair share of skulls by the time it’s over.
This final option is all the more amazing because of how unlikely it is. After all, this is nineteen-time Academy Award nominated thespian Meryl Streep we’re talking about here. With her marriage on the rocks, rafting expert Gail (Streep) takes her family out on the river to try and mend some fences with her husband (David Strathairn), but when they’re hijacked by a pair of armed robbers (Kevin Bacon and John C. Reilly), the family trip turns into a fight for survival.
The scene to watch for: Bacon’s Wade insists that Gail navigate them past the most treacherous point in the river, which leads to a nail-biting finale as Gail tries to turn the river to her advantage.
So while people like Avengers director Joss Whedon clamor for more female representation in big budget action films, there are some prime examples to look to of ladies in action. This is, by no means, a comprehensive list, and I’m sure you’re dying to tell me about all the great women I’ve missed. Please, sound off in the comments and let me know.