Tom Jolliffe on female action heroes…
With the impending UK release of Atomic Blonde, it now seems a good time to consider the female action hero. You may think this ‘phenomena’ only stretches back to around the time Sigourney Weaver donned a mecha-suit, but it goes back further. There has certainly been a significant rise in the last two decades in female lead action movies, but still, particularly on the big screen, they remain the exception to the rule. For whatever reason I suppose they’ve generally not sold as successfully as the male counterparts. Maybe the atypical grunting, stoic action caveman suits the male species more, but perhaps there’s still an inherent sexism. Indeed, when the ladies have it their own action piece there tends to be a level of exploitation (Atomic Blonde has all the hallmarks of an explo film going by the trailers, but in a good way). Or it may be played for laughs (Charlie’s Angels). It’s all too rare that said film is played inherently straight. By the same token of course, a huge proportion of iconic action films, especially from the 80’s onwards, have been played with a wry smirk. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s entire career is built off it.
With the odd oddity before that decade, the first significant period in cinema to focus on action heroines was the 60’s in the East. Most notably in Chinese Wuxia films. Josephine Siao and Connie Chan (the former in particular) paved the way. There was a significant impact from women in 60’s Eastern cinema and often they would also play male roles in some of the films too. In the 70’s there was a discernible shift to mostly male focus in Wuxia films. There were still notable stars appearing. Some may remember Angela Mao in Enter The Dragon. It remains her most famous work across the world, playing (in flashback) the younger sister of Bruce Lee’s central character. It still showcased her ability to mix it up with the men as she fought off a long line of male pursuers. Most won’t know the lengthy career she forged as a leading lady in China however.
Hollywood still lagged behind but the blaxploitation era would bring several memorable female action heroines. Tamara Dobson (Cleopatra Jones), Jeanne Bell (T.N.T Jackson) and most notably Pam Grier. Grier was a huge star in films like Foxy Brown and Coffy. She was tough, aggressive, determined and sexy. Of course these were less about empowerment and more about exploitation. The films tended to sexualise the leads. They were made objects of desire, but they embraced it and it hadn’t been done on screen or in society to much extent at the time (coming not long after M.L.K, Rosa Parks). It was taboo to a large extent. Grier however, whilst becoming an object of desire was far away from the damsel in distress. In American cinema at least, she, Dobson and the others would forge a path for the likes of Weaver to follow later. Although in the process, as the blaxplo movement died out with the rise of populist, blockbuster cinema, Hollywood became a predominantly white business again (And indeed, white male).
Beginning with Alien, Sigourney Weaver rose as a cinematic icon for the female hero. It was more so of course in the more action orientated sequel Aliens that we saw her as a badass. From memorable lines, to mechanical suits and large weaponry, Ellen Ripley succeeds where the men of the film failed, in dispatching the Alien threat. As far as her career went, Weaver never became typecast as the female action heroine after. By choice, or by Hollywood politics (maybe both), she retained a broad mix of roles. Though her Amazonian frame and unconventionally attractive looks would have lent themselves well to becoming even more of an action star. James Cameron would go further in the early 90’s by turning Linda Hamilton into an action icon with her role as Sarah Connor (in particular with the second Terminator).
In the 80’s, Chinese cinema had another explosion in female lead action films. Ironically one important woman over this era, who aided in ushering in the likes of Michelle Yeoh, was a Westerner. Cynthia Rothrock was plucked from Martial Arts tournaments and exhibitions by Golden Harvest Studios. For half a dozen or so pictures she was turned into a star. Immensely popular among Chinese audiences at the time for her uniquely western look and genuine fighting ability. She’s got a long list of black belts, trophies and further is also highly proficient in weapons based martial arts disciplines too. The turnover from Chinese cinema (she left just as Yeoh and others were taking up the mantle and overtaking her in popularity) to American was partly eased by Golden Harvest themselves with China O’Brien. Directed by Robert Clouse (Enter The Dragon) the film is an effective showcase for Rothrock’s physical talents but the straight to video release marked her card somewhat and its popularity in that world set her career as a video première specialist. Her nuggets of B-movie gold would include a sequel to China O’Brien as well as two Lady Dragon films and the Tiger Claws series.
One thing about Rothrock was that she is of course a genuine martial artist. As male fighters throughout the 80’s and early 90’s were spreading like wildfire on the big screen and in particular in the video market, a stigma rose. Be it Van Damme, Lundgren, down to guys like Gary Daniels, Don ‘The Dragon’ Wilson etc, critics deemed them garish brutes more capable of rubbing baby oil on themselves than actually acting. In a lot of cases the statement rang true, in some it was a little unfair (in retrospect). Though they didn’t get quite the same breaks, Rothrock, Karen Shepherd, Kathy Long had that same stigma. It somehow seemed that having a real black belt made you somehow incapable of acting. The realist would of course identify the poor scripts (often focused on purely getting to the action) and haphazard direction as reasons some of these stars were a little stiff when emoting.
So around the turn of the century and beyond, the tough action heroine was deemed a niche market to be filled. It would still become evident that in many cases they’d play second fiddle to a male lead (Halle Berry as a female answer to Bond in Die Another Day for example, or Trinity to Neo). There were odd exceptions like Charlie’s Angels. Though the overtly camp tone, odd wire work and overall poor quality didn’t particularly work as good showcases. The Matrix and its popularising of wire-fu also lead to a spate of “actresses” being wired up to look like badassess. In the case of Carrie-Anne Moss in The Matrix it worked because the Wachowski’s insisted on a strict regiment of training for 6 months before the film lensed. In other cases, the filmmakers did not. Perhaps devoting a matter of weeks, sometimes days on prepping these stars for fighting on camera. This was also true of male counterparts as the real dealers like Seagal and Van Damme disappeared from the big screen in place of more respected “actors.”
Steven Soderbergh would step briefly away from Hollywood convention and cast a real deal badass in his female lead action film Haywire. The star in question was Gina Carano a UFC fighter. With Soderbergh’s pull as a director too, despite the films meagre budget he was able to load the support cast with a vast array of acting talent to help carry the inexperienced Carano through. Whilst she’s not the greatest actress, she was solid enough, but it was the action scenes in particular which really showcased her on-screen. Brutal, exciting and shot with clarity it showed the star there, on-screen, without needing clever cutaways to hide a double. Big screen audiences hadn’t really seen (certainly in the west) a female action star in such intense fight sequences and quite clearly doing it all herself.
Carano has never quite lived up to that opening. The film didn’t particularly strike the audience required for a strong follow-up and she quickly reverted to smaller roles (as a Fast and Furious henchwoman and a Deadpool villain) in cinema films and leading straight to video roles. Her impact was enough to lead to Ronda Rousey being primed as the next UFC female action heroine to hit the big screen, but as yet she’s not gained much attention (significant fight defeats have tarnished her indestructible persona).
Scarlett Johansson has turned into something of an action specialist, notably as Natasha Romanoff in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. We’ve also seen her in Lucy and the recent (pointless) Ghost in the Shell remake. It may be a slight misuse of her talents to become typecast as an action actress, because she’s capable of much more interesting and complex roles. Of course, much like the Marvel actors, the help of stuntmen and CGI help make her look all the more convincing in these roles. Additionally Marvel and DC are slowly feeding more female characters into their film slates and the recent runaway success of Wonder Woman, which wholeheartedly defied somewhat sombre box office prediction to prove that audiences were ready to back (in huge numbers) a female-centric action film. What would have helped immensely of course is the fact the film was very good and inherently good willed in tone. We’ll now see a sequel (As well as her appearances in the Justice League films) and Marvel will likely follow suit with Captain Marvel.
As far as these genre franchises go, to a lesser extent, Milla Jovovich proved very successful as the headliner of six Resident Evil films. Whilst they’re immensely trashy they found an audience and to some were oddly entertaining for their unabashed badness. A six film run is no mean feat. They did so on a tighter budget than the big tent-poles of course but they set a realistic bar and the audience kept coming. She’s done other action roles aside, without hitting the same chord with audiences as Resident Evil has.
As for the Atomic Blonde herself? Charlize Theron has had a varied career. She had a previous stab at the action genre with Aeon Flux which on every level was a forgettable disaster. It was two years ago with George Miller’s superb Mad Max: Fury Road which marked Theron’s card as potential action Goddess. The film, as the previous two Gibson-led sequels did, see Max become a passenger in someone else’s story. He essentially represents the audience, falling into a story of hope and survival, and then disappears off to run into another. Theron’s quest as Furiosa was intriguing and much to the dismay of a subsection of the more Neanderthal audience (who dismissed Fury Road as a feminist film) she basically represents the heart and complexity of the film.
There could be a runoff if Atomic Blonde is marked successful (in following Wonder Woman’s success). Given the modest budget, it shouldn’t have a problem doing well enough to tempt studios into more female lead action films. As yet these brief spurts have never quite run off into a significant period of female lead action movies. The worry of course is that this genre can often be treated lazily by those making them. A male lead action film is more likely to get away with being mediocre, whereas it is deemed less forgivable for a woman to lead a mediocre action film. Dismissed perhaps as a lazy attempt at diversity box ticking. The sad truth of course is, that when a film comes out that ticks a diversity box off, in too many cases the film itself is made with a degree of cynicism, just to tick that box, keep some happy, but not given enough forethought or consideration to actually making a decent film. Time will tell.