The rise of the action woman

Recently I was listening to a podcast with Alicia Vikander, one where she talked about her role as the new Lara Croft and how the character has been rebooted as a more realistic heroine for modern women.

She mentioned how it seems there’s momentum these days, indeed appetite, towards high quality, well put together, action-driven films that feature a female lead. She mentioned Charlize Theron in Atomic Blonde and others, which got me thinking, is there momentum? Was there a specific moment that was the turning point?

Thinking back, Angelina Jolie has done the bulk of the heavy lifting since about 2000, with Charlize Theron playing her part too. But did they pave the way for the films we see now or has this been a longer time coming?

For me, I think the ’90s are a good place to start.
So below are the films and the various time periods that, for better or worse, I consider to have had a hand in where we are now. I’ve listed the actress, character, film, year, whether they were lead, co-lead or in a prominent supporting role, and the Rotten Tomatoes score, to give a rough indication of how the film was recieved by audiences.


THE 1990s

Yes we had Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley in Alien at the tail end of the ’70s, but the ’80s were dripping in macho testosterone. So, for me, the ’90s is where this movement started to gain traction, with actresses like Linda Hamilton and Geena Davis leading the way, putting in decent performances in exciting, entertaining movies.

Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991) 92%
Sarah Connor (supporting) – Linda Hamilton

The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996) 68%
Samantha Caine (lead) – Geena Davis

G.I. Jane (1997) 55%
Jordan O’Neil (lead) – Demi Moore

The Matrix (1999) 87%
Trinity (supporting) – Carrie-Anne Moss

THE 2000s

The good work the ’90s women put in gets somewhat undone at the start of this decade, with a bunch of terrible films (Eon Flux the biggest offender) and, whilst it’s no fault of the various actresses involved, it took a one-two punch of Angelina Jolie (Mr and Mrs Smith) and Uma Thurman (Kill Bill) to set things right. So by the end of the decade we were getting better films – and characters – with greater frequency (Hanna, Salt).

Then, by 2012, we’d probably reached a turning point. Angelina Jolie (aged 35 in Salt) couldn’t fly the flag forever, so others had to step up. Enter women like Jennifer Lawrence (22 in Hunger Games) and Saoirse Ronan (17 in Hanna), actresses that appealed and inspired a younger generation and helped push things further forward.

Charlie’s Angels (2000) 68%
Natalie Cook (co-lead) – Cameron Diaz, Dylan Sanders (co-lead) – Drew Barrymore, Alex Munday (co-lead) – Lucy Lui

Tomb Raider (2001) 20%
Lara Croft (lead) – Angelina Jolie

Resident Evil (2002) 34%
Alice (lead) – Milla Jovovich

Eon Flux (2005) 9%
Eon Flux (lead) – Charlize Theron

Mr and Mrs Smith (2005) 59%
Jane Smith (co-lead) – Angelina Jolie

Kill Bill (2003) 85%
Beatrix Kiddo (lead) – Uma Thurman

Wanted (2008) 71%
Fox (supporting) – Angelina Jolie

Salt (2010) 62%
Evelyn Salt (lead) – Angelina Jolie

Iron Man 2 (2010) 73%
Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (supporting) – Scarlet Johansson

Hanna (2011) 71%
Hanna (lead) – Saoirse Ronan

Hunger Games (2012) 84%
Katniss Everdeen (lead) – Jennifer Lawrence

2015 ONWARDS

In 2012 Disney acquired Star Wars as a property and set about making plans to expand the franchise with new films and characters, ones that would appeal to a modern audience. The majority of moviegoers want to see female characters better represented on screen, so franchises like Star Wars really need to lead the way.

Additionally, along with Marvel’s MCU and a smattering of female superheroes, even DC studios got in on the act, with a female-led action movie in Wonder Woman (something Marvel could only really match with supporting characters in films like Black Panther). Momentum and quality, though, had really shifted. If the below selection are anything to go by.

Mad Max (2015) 97%
Furiosa (supporting) – Charlize Theron

Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation (2015) 93%
Isla Faust (supporting) – Rebecca Ferguson

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) 93%
Rey (co-lead) – Daisy Ridley

Rogue One: A Star Wars story (2016) 85%
Jyn Erso (lead) – Felicity Jones

Wonder Woman (2017) 92%
Diana Prince (lead) – Gal Gadot

Atomic Blonde (2017) 77%
Lorraine Broughton – Charlize Theron

Black Panther (2018) 97%
Shuri (supporting) – Letitia Wright and Okoye (supporting) – Danai Garira

Mad Max: Is it Furiosa enough?

Mel Gibson made his name with the Max Max films and, in Max Rockatansky, he created a character that demanded your attention. He might not say much verbally, but you understood his intent, and indeed his intensity of purpose.

Stepping into his shoes three decades later is a man who’s already made his name in intense roles elsewhere, Tom Hardy. Great casting. And with the director of the original films, George Miller, on board you feel this new version is in safe hands.

joe

Not that you want safe from a Mad Max film, but you get the idea. With very little setup we’re straight into Max being captured by a gang of white-skinned, deformed ‘War Boys’ led by Predator look-alike Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne). They take him back to their base of operations and, through a series of events, he meets Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), fleeing the gang with Joe’s prized possessions in tow, his ‘breeders’/wives/concubines, adorned in flowing robes and all stunningly beautiful women (including supermodels Rosie Huntingdon-Whiteley and Abbie Lee Kershaw), standing out like shining lights in this apocalyptic and desolate desert world.

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They flee here and they flee there. And that’s about it as far as the plot goes. But plot isn’t really what you want from a Mad Max film. You want excess, depravity, modified cars, huge explosions, deranged gangs, and a sense of a world gone to hell.

Well… You get all that and then some.

Miller looks like he’s had quite a few ideas brewing the past few decades as there’s so many detailed touches and insane concepts on the screen that you don’t quite know where to look half the time, or what to think. From large, busty women hooked up to milking machines to War Boys spraying their lips with chrome paint and getting high off Max’s blood, it’s like a shot of flaming sambuca straight in your face whilst you’re hooked up to an electric torture chair. And you’ll love it for that.

FURY ROAD

The action set pieces (of which there are many) are done with as little CGI as possible and they’re truly awe-inspiring. Filmed largely in the desert in Namibia, it must have been a nightmare for the cast and crew. Happily, their suffering was not in vain as this is one epic thrill ride. It has downtime too (although not much), so you don’t get burnout from all the mayhem.

Character wise, Theron as Furiosa is inspired. Missing half an arm and covered in black grease, she’s learnt to survive in this world and past horrors are alluded to. She gives Furiosa depth and vulnerability with a nice steely side, providing a welcome contrast to Hardy’s Max, who says very little but speaks volumes when he does.

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If I had a criticism it would be that I felt Max could be a little more furious and unhinged. Even in the most dire circumstances he seems fairly calm and collected. There’s a few moments which nod to a past where he failed to protect his loved ones – and this is done in a manner which suggests he’s losing his grip on reality. More of that would have been welcomed, as we know Hardy can do method and he can definitely do madness (see Bronson), but here he seems restrained. Miller should have let him off the leash – as he did for almost everyone else on the cast.

Overall though, this is hugely entertaining, edge-of-your-seat stuff. Team this with the recently released John Wick and you’ll have one crazy night ahead of you, cinematically speaking.

Trailer park: Focus, Mad Max, Ex Machina

As 2014 draws to a close I thought a quick look ahead to three rather exciting films out next year wouldn’t be amiss. (Obviously, there’s lots more, but for these little trailer park breakdowns, three is the magic number.)

Focus (In cinemas February 2015)
Will Smith and Margot Robbie (her from The Wolf of Wall Street) star in this rom-com-con, as it’s a film about a con artist who falls for his hot protégé. Based on the trailer, Robbie looks to be giving Amber Heard a run for her money in the old school Hollywood glamour stakes.

robbie

Ex Machina (In cinemas April 2015)
Written and directed by Alex Garland (making his debut as a director) this films tells the story of a computer coder (Domhnall Gleeson) who thinks he’s won a chance to stay at the house of his CEO for a week, but is actually participating in an experiment involving artificial intelligence (namely, Alicia Vikander’s character).

ex

Mad Max: Fury Road (In cinemas May 2015)
Make no mistake, this film is part of a franchise. And there’s been a gap of 30 years between the last film and this one. Originally starring Mel Gibson, we now have Hollywood’s go-to guy for intensity as the lead, Tom Hardy. Charlize Theron is also thrown in for good measure, as the fantastically named Imperator Furiosa.

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On my mind… Charlize Theron

the_burning_plain19Having just watched The Burning Plain it’s become clear that we need to discuss the career of Charlize Theron. She doesn’t get anywhere near enough love (or interesting roles) and that needs to change. This isn’t an intervention or a rant. Simply put, this is a frank acknowledgement of talent.

As all the great actresses of our generation tend to do, she mixes blockbusters and smaller projects with consummate ease. Another point to mention is that, like some of Hollywood’s most beautiful actresses, she’s not afraid to remove the glamour and strip things right back, leaving little to hide behind except her performance. This is evident in Monster, but it’s also a strong theme in all of her work highlighted below. Still… I’d love to see her in more. Hollywood, it’s time to step up and send her scripts!

Anyway, here’s my pick of her best performances to date:

The Devil’s Advocate (1997)
She largely burst onto the scene here – opposite Keanu Reeves and Al Pacino – with a beautiful, tormented and captivating performance. One which set her career standard.

Monster (2003)
A deserved Oscar win for what is considered a powerhouse performance. When one of Hollywood’s most beautiful women transforms herself to this level you sit up and take notice.

North Country (2005)
Continuing a fine run of form she got a best actress nomination for this role in what some critics have argued – in some ways – was a more complex character to portray than her Oscar winning one in Monster.

The Burning Plain (2008)
Guillermo Arriaga (the writer behind Babel) directed this tale of loss and guilt and, whilst the film is somewhat confusingly edited, Theron shone in her scenes with another fine display.

Young Adult (2011)
There’s no doubt that director Jason Reitman’s tale here was both tough, tender and funny throughout. A large part of that was, once again, down to Theron, who balanced the film’s comic and tragic moments with equal skill.

Labor Day: Reitman’s most heartfelt film?

20131103-LYALL-slide-7RAH-articleLarge As a director, Jason Reitman appears to be growing up fast. Labor Day is the fifth feature length film he’s given us and his progression as a storyteller is clear to see.

This film, set in a sleepy suburban American town in 1987, tells the story of Henry (Gattlin Griffith) and his mother Adele (Kate Winslet) whose life is gatecrashed by escaped convict Frank (Josh Brolin) in a supermarket at the start of Labor Day weekend. He effectively holds them hostage, at least initially, until the coast is clear. Yet what then develops is a complex relationship between the three of them that is both tender, affecting and very human.

With Reitman pulling the strings – the man behind Juno and Up In The Air – you’d expect snappy dialogue and snazzy, snarky characters.labor-day-review-9 Here he strips the story right back and the majority of the film is told in looks and glances, eyes darting back and forth as characters try to figure each other out.

As Reitman is a wonderful observer of human interaction, this perfectly plays to his strengths and no doubt tested both himself and his cast. The two leads, Brolin and Winslet, rose to the challenge like masters at work. The film is warm in tone too. Set in the late ’80s the whole thing appears bathed in the golden glow of late summer. Like one happy memory. It’s not all sweetness and light though. The whole film is tinged with sadness, loneliness and loss.

If you take Reitman’s last two films (Young Adult and Up In The Air) there’s a strong sense of loneliness in both the main characters: Charlize Theron’s Mavis Gary and George Clooney’s Ryan Bingham – they’re both searching for a genuine human connection. labor-day-movie-picture-2Here Winslet’s character continues that theme with possibly the most convincing performance of one of Reitman’s leads.

Apparently he wrote the script specifically with her in mind and kept the film on hold until the actress was available. You can see why too, it’s a compelling performance from Winslet, one of her best since 2008 when she won awards for The Reader and Revolutionary Road. Ultimately this film represents a shift of gears for Reitman, and indeed perhaps a more mature direction. He’s drawn brilliant performances out the cast – Winslet in particular – and created a piece of work that is both moving, well observed, nostalgic and highly engaging.

Can’t wait to see what he does next.

Who are the top 20 most intense actors of recent times?

charlie bronson

I do like an intense character and performance when I’m watching a film. Someone who literally rivets and welds you to the screen, look away at your peril. Some people probably like their films bright and breezy. I don’t mind those too, but there’s something about intensity that leaves a lasting impression. You remember those performances.

As such I thought I’d offer a couple of lists of actors and actresses that have had me mesmerised, entranced and – at times – a little frightened. I’ve most likely left off a lot of vintage performances and characters, but this is MY list so I’m allowed. Let me know your thoughts. Who would you have liked to have seen included?

In these lists I’ve put links to clips from some performances you might not have seen before, or maybe just want to revisit. Remember though, best not watch alone though, these lot are intense!

The guys

  1. charlie bronsonDaniel Day Lewis (Bill ‘the Butcher’ Cutting, Gangs of New York; Daniel Plainview, There will be Blood)
  2. Heath Ledger (The Joker, The Dark Knight)
  3. Tom Hardy (Charles Bronson, Bronson)
  4. Christian Bale (Patrick Bateman, American Psycho; Batman, The Batman Trilogy)
  5. Kevin Spacey (John Doe, Seven)
  6. Christopher Walken (Vicenzo Carcotti, True Romance; Frank White, King of New York)
  7. Javier Bardem (Anton Chigurh, No Country for Old Men)
  8. Christopher Waltz (Col. Hans Landa, Inglourious Basterds)
  9. Vincent Cassel (Jacques Mesrine, Mesrine)
  10. Liam Neeson (Bryan Mills, Taken)
  11. Jeremy Renner (Sergeant William James, The Hurt Locker; Jem Coughlin, The Town)
  12. Gary Oldman (Drexel, True Romance)

The gals

  1. helena bonham carter harry potterHelena Bonham Carter (Red Queen, Alice in Wonderland; Bellatrix Lestrange, Harry Potter)
  2. Cate Blanchett (Galadriel, Lord of the Rings)
  3. Marion Cotillard (Mal, Inception)
  4. Angelina Jolie (Lisa Rowe, Girl, Interrupted)
  5. Melanie Laurent (Shosanna Dreyfus, Inglourious Basterds)
  6. Charlize Theron (Aileen Wuornos, Monster)
  7. Famke Janssen (Xena Onotopp, Goldeneye; Jean Grey, Xmen: The Last Stand)
  8. Noomi Rapace (Lisbeth Salander, Girl with the Dragon Tattoo)

So, there’s my list. You’ll notice there’s more men than women, I’m not sure why. I think, perhaps, there’s a tendency – particularly in Hollywood – for studios to shy away from films with intense, female leads. I wonder if they are more of a risk commercially? I don’t think that’s the case. I think it’s more to do with a lack of decent scripts for women, ones that don’t play to stereotypes.

One thing I’ve noticed is how top actors portray intensity – for me – it’s in the eyes. I think it’s what separates great actors and actresses from the rest. If you allow yourself to be drawn into their gaze, there’s so much depth there. Depending on the character they’re playing, it can be equally exciting, captivating and terrifying. Watch Pacino in The Godfather, making the decision to kill with his eyes. A lesson in intensity.

Right, I need to go watch some comedy now to level out. It’s all got too much. I’ll finish with artwork of Marion Cotillard, not because it’s intense, but because it’s simply beautiful – and that’s all the reason you need.

Marion Cotillard artwork