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

Cate Blanchett – modern day screen goddess

blanchett galadrielA few days after seeing the latest in the Middle Earth saga, The Hobbit, I realised a particular scene involving Blanchett had burrowed its way firmly into my subconscious.

Taking place in Rivendell, it focused on a tender moment between Gandalf and Galadriel, as they discussed the rise of a potential necromancer.

As it had been quite a few years since the LOTR trilogy I’d half forgotten how ethereal and captivating Blanchett had made Galadriel. Few actresses could have portrayed the elven queen the way she did.

This got me thinking of other characters she’s played that have had a similar impact on my subconscious, albeit for various different reasons. Galadriel aside, here’s my list:

Katharine Hepburn – The Aviator (2004)

Playing such an iconic individual was never going to be easy. Blanchett, though, made it look effortless, with a captivating and compelling performance. She clearly revelled in the part too, adding layers to Hepburn that delighted and surprised in every scene. So much so, that the results deservedly won her an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.

life aquatic cate blanchettJane Winslett-RichardsonThe Life Aquatic (2004)

Securing a part originally written for Kate Winslet, hence the character’s name, she played a reporter who draws both the affections of Owen Wilson’s Ned and Bill Murray’s Zissou.
Her character’s relationship with Ned was wonderfully sweet and affecting and gave the film a lot of heart.

Irina SpalkoIndiana Jones: Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)

Granted her character is a one-size-fits-all, clichéd Russian baddie, but this type of adventure action movie is a guilty pleasure, so surely that’s the point? That said, in a role that could’ve been one-dimensional, Blanchett gave Spalko depth and intensity. Her climactic ‘I vant to know’ scene cemented a place on this list.

marissa weigler cate blanchett hannaMarissa WeiglerHanna (2011)

Directed by Joe Wright, this dark, intelligent, fairy tale-esque action film played like a Brothers Grimm version of a Bourne film. Or a thinking person’s Kick-Ass. Here, Blanchett played an immoral and ruthless CIA agent, bent on chasing down Saoirse Ronan’s teen assassin Hanna. Another over-the-top villain? Possibly, but still a great performance.

Daisy FullerThe Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)

To say this film divided people is an understatement. From two reviews I read earlier – both well-respected critics – one gave it one star and one gave it five. Love or hate the story, it’s difficult to fault Blanchett’s beautifully nuanced performance, as the love interest to Brad Pitt’s increasingly youthful Benjamin Button.

Natalie Portman’s top 5 performances

natalie portman

natalie portmanThis piece slightly follows on from my recent post on how Hayden Christensen ruined Star Wars. After writing I began to think about the other actors in those films, particularly Natalie Portman and how highly I rate her work.

Other than Leon in 1994, her first major role as an adult actress was Star Wars. She was cast in 1997 – just 3 years after Leon – with the first film out in 1999. That said, I didn’t really become a fan until 2004 and her indie phase.

Her appeal for me is that – in terms of actresses that combine brains and beauty and mix up Hollywood blockbusters with cool, little indie films – she’s one of the best. Let’s look at what I consider to be her best performances.

  1. Black Swan (2010)
    This obviously has to make the top spot. Portman won an Academy award as Best Actress for her role as Nina – perhaps drawing on earlier experience playing characters in Closer and V for Vendetta – she gave a mesmerising, unsettling and yet captivating performance which firmly pushed her into the A list.
  2. natalie portmanLeon (1994)
    What can we say about her performance in this one? Holding her own against big names; Jean Reno, Gary Oldman etc. Without her performance here we may never have had Hanna – a super cool film with Saoirse Ronan. Also, Gareth Evans – Director of critically-acclaimed film The Raid – cited Leon as a major influence.
  3. Garden State (2004)
    I loved her in this – so sweet and vulnerable, yet bubbly and optimistic. A perfect contrast to Zach Braff’s dour character. It’s roles like this that cemented her in my mind as one of my favourite actresses. The ultimate girl-next-door who listens to The Shins and makes you love life!
  4. natalie portmanV for Vendetta (2005)
    She got a hard time for her accent in this – swinging from super posh to cor blimey Dick Van Dyke. However she gave the character – Evey – a perfect mix of strength and vulnerability. Plus how many actresses do you know that would shave their head for a role and end up looking more beautiful?
  5. Closer (2004)
    Released the same year as Garden State and a brave breakaway from her relatively wooden turn in Star Wars (I blame Lucas, he’s known for giving actors little direction or getting much out of them). Here she uses her brilliant mix of vulnerability and sexuality to full effect – although the scene where Jude Law’s character breaks up with her is heartbreaking – how could he? It’s like kicking a puppy, she’s so lovely.

So there’s my list, what do you think? Any missing that you feel should have made the cut?

What’s next for our Natalie?
In terms of future projects, she’s in Terence Malick’s Knight of Cups which is in pre-production. Although he’s known for editing out big actors, so who knows if she’ll appear much in the finished film. Let’s hope so. She currently filming Thor: The Dark World, plus a few rumoured films for 2014.

I’ll leave you with her audition tape from Leon. Worth watching more than once, there’s subtle expressions she gives you might miss first time round. She displays a sharp wit, sassy nature, intelligence and maturity – no wonder she got the part.

Clooney and Lake Como – the lacklustre American

George ClooneyFor this post I’d like to review a film I watched recently that’s been on DVD for a little while, The American, starring George Clooney. Nothing new you might say, but I like to think my take on it is fresh, or at least personal to me, so here goes.

Question: you’re an up and coming director (Anton Corbijn), how do you get a A-list actor to appear in your film? Answer: show him the script (where not a great deal happens) and explain the film takes place a stone’s throw from his Italian home at Lake Como. Seal the deal by introducing him to the actress he’ll be opposite for much of the film, the achingly beautiful Violante Placido. Then you’re in business!

Ok, maybe I am being a little cynical. I am sure the fact the film was set in Italy didn’t influence Clooney one bit. That said, the sort of minimalist, gritty, European feel to the film was a good way to set the tone. It was a sort of brooding, reflective version of a Bourne film, i.e. an assassin type laying low trying to figure out who is trying to kill him, versus assassin type running around Europe trying to get his memory back, whilst trying to figure out who is trying to kill him.

The AmericanMake no mistake, I am not saying The American compares to the Bourne films in any way, other than a similarity in terms of setting the scene and the European feel. It also shares similar DNA with Hanna, the Joe Wright directed piece that was a sort of modern version of Leon. Actually, come to think of it, a lot of films have followed where Bourne has led, in terms of European setting with short, sharp Krav-maga esque fight sequences. Taken, with Liam Neeson is another example. Although I am moving off the point here, back to The American.

Did Clooney convince as an assassin who had lost his edge? I would say on occasion. Maybe he was let down by the script. In general, just not much happened, it was all fairly slow paced. Maybe that was the idea.  Keep it slow and sleepy then hit the audience with bursts of action, like Clooney chasing an assassin who has caught up with him on a moped – you cannot get more Italian than that!

I suppose, even for a film where an assassin was meant to be in hiding/laying low, most of us want to see more ruthless, assassin type behaviour. The aforementioned scene with the moped chase was short but sweet in that respect. Clooney chasing a hitman who has failed to whack him, shooting out his tyres forcing him to crash, then throttling him. It was quite bad-ass and reminded me of a scene in Out of Sight, where he has to prove he can handle himself in prison, smacking Don Cheadle’s heavy enforcer in the face with a book. ClooneySimilarly, Dusk till Dawn, one of his breakout films, introduced him with more edge, moving away from any heartthrob ER days, less Ocean’s Eleven smugness, more tattoos up his neck and tough attitude.

So, to sum up, I think The American is worth a watch if you’ve got a spare evening, but it’s not vintage Clooney, and it’s not a vintage assassin film either. Maybe a solid 3 out 5 stars. Watchable, but just not that engaging. If you want shots of pretty, picturesque Italian towns and the super sexy Violante Placido, then it’s worth a viewing!