Tom Jolliffe on the current leading ladies of action…
The 21st century has seen many things. Among those has been a push for equality across all spectrums. Of course there’s work still to be done, but progress has at least been made. The action genre has historically been monopolised by male stars. This was slightly different in Chinese cinema where Wuxia films of the 50’s and 60’s had an even balance between male and female lead pictures. Beyond then, the trend passed in and out of certain cinema regions. In Hong Kong cinema during the 80’s, Michelle Yeoh and Cynthia Rothrock lead a resurgence in interest for female lead martial arts films. Prior to that, American cinema’s fascination seemed to begin and end in exploitation films. There were Russ Meyer skin flicks (plus some action elements) with female lead heroines. Then in the 70’s, stars like Pam Grier became hugely popular in the Blaxploitation action pictures.
The end of last century didn’t seem to have much space outside of Asia for cinematic action heroines. Cynthia Rothrock was almost a force of one in the straight to video action circuit, with a few others like Brigitte Nielsen flitting in and out. Things took a turn when Carrie-Anne Moss played a prominent and kickass part in the last iconic actioner of the century, The Matrix. Though progress wasn’t as fast as it might have been, and the studio interest in pushing female lead action, came in fits and starts, we’re now seeming a very definitive push to promote female lead action once more. One which may well be more permanent. So who are the cream of the crop right now?
Jolie’s action career has actually dated back almost 30 years now. Her humble beginning came in Cyborg 2. The post Matrix boost for action heroines saw Jolie as one of the front runners, taking on the role of Lara Croft in Tomb Raider. As a female Indiana Jones she excelled and the first film, though silly, is still one of the better video game adaptations (largely because Jolie sells it so well). Two decades on and an array of ass-kickery later (Wanted, Salt) and Jolie is still finding time to get in on the action with Eternals and Those Who Wish Me Dead. She has repeatedly stepped back to the genre, as she intermittently flicks between drama, Disney vehicles and action.
Charlize Theron had a less than stellar beginning in action with Aeon Flux (remember that?), but with Mad Max: Fury Road she really cemented herself as a star of the genre. In fact, for a film titled Mad Max, it was Furiosa who stole the movie. It’s also that character who is being brought back for the follow up (though in a younger guise, played by Anya Taylor-Joy this time). Atomic Blonde put Theron through the wringer physically and there are hopes for a follow up, whilst the Netflix backed Old Guard is set to continue as a franchise. She’s also revelled in villainy as a now consistent part of the Fast franchise.
From Orange is The New Black, to some bit part appearances in action films (John Wick: Chapter 2), all of a sudden Ruby Rose found herself on a prolific run of action films, predominantly in the straight to home entertainment realm. We’ve yet to really see the full potential, but it seems there are no signs of the Rose express slowing, as her market appeal remains strong (even if she proved less than popular as Batgirl in the series).
She might have starred in one of the weaker Bond entries, Quantum of Solace, but she was one of the more interesting elements in the film. Kurylenko had enough traction from Bond infamy, to launch herself as a leading lady and found herself becoming a regular in the action genre. She’s carved out a solid run of action films, even if they’ve transitioned from theatrical properties to DTV. Kurylenko continues to be a marketable presence, who backs up her popularity with believability and a great presence.
Milla might be the most prolific action heroine of the century. With countless Resident Evil jaunts behind her, as well as a host of other action roles, she’s been a reliable go to for studios. Even into her 40’s she’s in no danger of slowing down (and if the old boys like Arnold and Sly can continue on into their bus pass ages, why not the ladies?). Jovovich most recently battled monsters alongside Tony Jaa in Monster Hunter. More carnage is on the horizon.
She could bench-press Arnold Schwarzenegger and makes Jean-Claude Van Damme look like Woody Allen. Mayling Ng has fought alongside Wonder Woman, provided ample foe in an array of action films (with some great turns in Debt Collectors 2 and Lady Bloodfight). Ng is on the verge of a breakout with a plum role in James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad, as well as a role in Legend of The White Dragon. A move into leading roles will surely follow, particularly as Ng is also the real deal. A black-belt in Martial arts, weapon expert, fitness champion and all round badass. No doubles or crash course training required here.
Juju Chan has done the rounds on the action circuit. With a list of talents from acting, writing, singing, modelling and martial arts expertise, she ticks an array of boxes. Chan, has turned up in an array of supporting roles in films like Hollow Point, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny and Jiu Jitsu. She’s also been prominent in Netflix action series Wu Assassins. She’ll certainly deserve being front and center when the time comes and like Ng, brings the physical prowess and expertise that could mark her above her contemporaries.
Natalie Burn has had a prolific decade, rising from minor roles to featured support to some leading roles along the way. A strong will and motivation has seen her propel herself by producing some star turns in her journey, whilst a background in ballet also lent itself to developing proficiency in delivering fight scenes. Burn has plenty of presence and physical ability to become a prolific action star, and she showed promise in last year’s Acceleration (co-starring an array of action icons like Dolph Lundgren and Danny Trejo, as well as the aforementioned Ng). She’s making her presence felt in the genre, and there’s definitely more to come from Burn. There are definite market gaps in the direct to DVD/VOD market, and Burn could be a prominent name (perhaps beyond that too).
After a breakout in Naked Weapon, a lot was expected from Maggie Q as an action heroine. She’s worked solidly since, and within the genre itself. Along the way she has had some memorable supporting roles in Hollywood action films like Mission: Impossible III and Live Free or Die Hard, and headlined a Nikita series. Despite a great presence, acting talent, a martial arts background and willingness to perform many of her own stunts (that also inevitably comes from starting your film career in Hong Kong), Q has become disappointingly consigned to supporting roles. Given how busy she’s remained, maybe lets not call it a comeback, but a return to front and center in The Protégé (opposite Samuel L. Jackson and Michael Keaton), directed by Martin Campbell, looks like a great use of her abilities and the potential kick-start of a Q-naissance in the action genre.
Halle Berry is a legend and she’s showing no signs of slowing down. Into her 50’s and you’d think those flirtations with the action genre (particularly as Storm and Catwoman) might be a thing of the past. Try telling Halle that! She got in on the post Taken, Taken-riff run with Kidnap (one of the better ones) then put blood, sweat and bullets into John Wick 3, matching the almost unmatchable dedication of Keanu Reeves in the requisite training. Berry will then play an MMA fighter, which once again has pushed her physically and showed an immense dedication. Perhaps there’ll be more ass-kickin’ on the horizon.
If Gillian ever needs any advice on the action genre, it’ll surely come from hubby and action legend Michael Jai-White. However, she’s certainly proven more than proficient in her own right. Co-starring in an array of MJW’s action vehicles, Gillian shifted from a more drama orientated CV to becoming one of the rising action heroines of the moment. She stood out in the recent reboot/sequel/spinoff, Welcome to Sudden Death (based on the Van Damme Die Hard at an Ice Hockey Stadium riff) and more recently in Take Back, which took the interesting turn of making Gillian the headlining badass, and Michael the unawares everyman husband. True Lies in reverse. Stepping out on her own might be of benefit, and she’s got the talent to do so.
Who is your favourite female action star of the moment? Let us know on our social channels @flickeringmyth….
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due out in 2021/2022, including, Renegades (Lee Majors, Danny Trejo, Michael Pare, Tiny Lister, Patsy Kensit, Ian Ogilvy and Billy Murray), Crackdown, When Darkness Falls and War of The Worlds: The Attack (Vincent Regan). Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see here.