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.

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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.