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The Weekly Listicle: Action Heroines!

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May 13th, 2010 at 7:06 pm

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For some reason Ridley Scott decided another retelling of Robin Hood was a good idea, and this week marks the opening of the newest version. Scott and lead actor Russell Crowe worked together successfully in Gladiator ten years ago, and it seems they’re hoping to rekindle audience love for that sort of movie. Jude Law paramour and Anna Wintour favorite Sienna Miller was slated to play Maid Marion opposite Crowe, but the rumors flew that Crowe had gained so much weight, Miller looked like a skinny child next to him. Fellow Aussie Cate Blanchett took the role instead.

Will Blanchett’s Marion hold her own against Crowe’s undoubtedly hypermasculine Robin Hood? We’ll see…

Blanchett exercised her heroine chops as ephemeral and spooky Galadriel in the Lord of the Rings movies and in the Elizabeth movies as none other than the virgin Queen herself; the actress has built an impressive resume filled with roles of strong women. Why she chose to play Marion is beyond me (though she did say recently at Cannes she would rather have played Robin Hood than Marion). Nonetheless, we can hope that in this adaptation, Marion is not a damsel in distress, but a woman who can hold her own and fight beside the men. This week’s Listicle is dedicated to action heroines throughout film history. List your favorites in the comments.

Julia’s Picks:

Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) in the Alien films (original 1979, dir. Ridley Scott)

Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) has been the focus of film scholars for years.

As far as badass action stars go, Ripley has to be numero uno. She’s got it all: smarts, toughness, the ability to return the gaze. Ripley works as a warrant officer for the Weyland-Yutani company on the ship Nostromo. She proves the only sane one of the crew, and the sole survivor at the end of Alien. The Alien movies, aside from being extraordinarily creepy and toeing the line between sci-fi and horror, are interesting largely because they place women in roles generally given to men: the Alien, still one of cinema’s most terrifying monsters, is female. The Nostromo’s computer, Mother, is female (and this of course causes one to compare the Nostromo to the womb). Ripley, whose motherhood helps define her character, goes on to star in the remainder of the series, holding her own again and again.

Authors like Carol Clover have taken issue with the fact that, so often in movies, female survivors are stripped of their femininity in order to win the final battle (see Wikipedia’s short rundown of Clover’s Final Girl theory and arguments against Ripley as a final girl here). Sure, Ripley sports a masculine haircut and displays musculature unfamiliar to most women in sci-fi and horror films at the time (not anymore, as William and I will show you). She takes on the Alien in a battle of wits and brawn, and she comes out victorious. She’s well recognized as one of film’s best heroes because, well, she’s a badass, purely and simply.

Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) in the Matrix movies (1999, 2003, dir. The Wachowski Brothers)

Dodge this: Trinity saves Neo in a pinch, establishing her as one of the movies’ best heroines.

Teenage boys and girls everywhere left theaters drooling over the Wachowskis’ tough, scowling warrior Trinity (one of my best friends dressed as Trinity for Halloween about eight years running). Like our other heroines, Trinity is hard, a little scary, and it turns out, a little more human than she’d like us to think. Unlike our other heroines, Trinity is a hacker, an intensely smart woman in a field (still) mostly populated by men. To rehash the premise of the original seems unnecessary since the film was such a worldwide phenomenon; I’ve never met anyone who didn’t see it. To be short: Thomas Anderson, hacker alias Neo (Keanu Reeves) and the rest of the world live inside a simulated reality computer program called The Matrix. The real world is a dystopian nightmare where human energy is sapped to power a network of computers that keeps them alive and believing they live in the real world. Trinity, messiah-like Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), and the crew of the hovercraft Nebuchadnezzar, rescue Neo from his banal everyday life as a computer programmer and show him the truth.

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Trinity is the only female character who appears in all three films, and her intelligence, toughness, and fighting skills make her a heroine for the ages. Watching her manipulate the simulated reality of the Matrix, jumping through windows, diving through the air with a hard scowl on her face, swinging into the sides of buildings, is incredible. She coolly, calmly holds a gun to the enemy’s head and says, “Dodge this.” End scene, we’re in love.

Cherry Darling (Rose McGowan) in Planet Terror (2007, dir. Robert Rodriguez)

Cherry Darling (Rose McGowan) manages to keep her composure in even the hottest of situations.

Planet Terror is a brilliant homage/send-up of the exploitation pictures that flickered on the screens of grindhouses everywhere (hence its release as the first half of the Tarantino-Rodriguez collaboration of awesomeness, Grindhouse). While Tarantino’s Death Proof features the real-life badass Zoe Bell doing incredible stunts atop speeding cars, Planet Terror’s victim/heroine Cherry Darling is a hero in her own ridiculous way.

Cherry is a go-go dancer with a mysterious past. She quits her demeaning job (when she dances, she weeps, and her boss tells her, “It’s go-go, not cry-cry!”), ends up stranded on the road, and zombies consume her right leg from the thigh down. Cherry wakes in the hospital to find herself surrounded by the flesh-eating undead. Her ex-boyfriend Wray (Freddy Rodriguez) rescues her and equips her with a machine gun to replace her missing leg. In one of the movie’s best and most hilariously fantastic scenes, Cherry props herself behind Wray on his motorcycle and lifts her gun-leg, cutting down dozens of zombies as the motorcycle spins around, burning rubber and whipping her gorgeous hair around her face. Cherry may not be the epitome of heroine, but she, like Ripley, manages to outsmart the baddies and survive the tale with the help of a few big guns and a lot of determination.

Alice (Milla Jovovich) in the Resident Evil movies (2002, 2004, 2007, 2010, dir. Paul W.S. Anderson)

Jovovich as Alice manages to hold her own against the Umbrella Corporation and zombies alike.

The Resident Evil movies are kind of awful, as are most things directed by Paul W.S. Anderson and/or based on video games. As zombie-fighting protagonist Alice, though, Milla Jovovich manages to play sexy, tough, and slightly vulnerable pretty easily. In laboratory complex the Hive, beneath Raccoon City, the T-virus has been unleashed, turning hundreds of scientists and lab animals into ravenous flesh-eaters. As the story unfolds in the next three movies, Alice, like Ripley, remains the sole survivor.

Most movies that feature heroines that wear tight, sometimes revealing clothing, and of course Resident Evil is no exception (how else do you appeal to the gamers they were going for?). Jovovich is often clad in leather (quite practical when fighting zombies, actually), short skirts (not so practical), and always carries a big gun. Her toughness and dexterity (which she learns is a “gift” from the sinister Umbrella Corporation—which also released the T-virus) keep her one step ahead of the game even as zombies conquer the world around her.

River Tam (Summer Glau) in “Firefly” (2002, created by Joss Whedon) and Serenity (2005, dir. Joss Whedon)

Don’t mess with River: Summer Glau in a promotional shot for Serenity.

Joss Whedon favorite Summer Glau is a classically trained ballet dancer. Tiny, agile, and bendy, her “Firefly” character River is both a bit nutty and a bit terrifying. Like Alice, River’s been “gifted” by an evil corporation with insane martial arts abilities and unbelievable dexterity, and she can be triggered by subliminal messaging. River’s also extremely intelligent, resourceful, and although the crew of Serenity (mostly her brother Simon) thinks they have to take care of her, as it turns out she’s more than capable of handling herself.

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River manages to save the day in the end and remain herself, and that’s what makes a hero. See video above for evidence of severe badassery.

William’s Picks:


Oyuki the Tattooed Assassin in Baby Cart in Peril (dir. Buichi Saito, 1972)

This rare glimpse of Oyuki’s face means someone’s probably gonna die. – Baby Cart in Peril.

The Baby Cart movies (also known as the Lone Wolf and Cub series) are among the best action franchises ever made. The six movies starred Tomisaburo Wakayama as Ogami Itto, a disgraced executioner turned assassin for hire after the death of his family. His small son Daigoro accompanies him via a “Baby Cart” filled with hidden weapons. As they seek revenge against Yagyu clan that destroyed their lives, they also find themselves in a series of adventures that test their mettle in battle. Before the series got too far, it became clear that the only way to really challenge Ogami Itto was to throw entire armies at him, but his greatest enemy was a single woman known as Oyuki, the tattooed assassin.

Alas, we cannot show you her other tattoos, but we assure you they are VERY distracting – Baby Cart in Peril.

Oyuki (Michie Azuma) was a bodyguard who turned on her masters, and has since been brutally slaying every man sent to eliminate her. She has large tattoos on her breasts and back that she uses in battle, stripping mid-fight to distract her opponents both with her nudity and the tattoos themselves. Tattooing, as Baby Cart in Peril tells us via a scene with her tattoo artist, was ridiculously painful at the time when the film is set, and Oyuki never so much as made a sound during the lengthy stabbing process. We come to learn that her obsession stems from her former instructor, who raped her and started her on this bloody path to revenge.

Alas, it’s Ogami Itto’s film, and Oyuki does have to fight him, and since there are two more films in the franchise you can guess how it all ends. But never had Ogami Itto found a finer antagonist, tragic and badass all at the same time.

Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2: Judgment Day (dir. James Cameron, 1992)

Fans of Linda Hamilton’s television career might be excited to learn that she is both beauty AND beast. – Terminator 2: Judgment Day.

By the end of James Cameron’s Terminator, mousy waitress Sarah Connor had found and lost the love of her life, and destroyed an unstoppable killing machine whose only mission was to murder her unborn child. Empowered, sure, but crazy? That’s where Cameron took his leading lady in Terminator 2: Judgment Day, a film that illustrated how a Terminator could become human and how a human could become a Terminator.

Sarah Connor has only one mission in her life, the polar opposite of her enemy’s mission… to protect her son. This mission led her to travel around the world training young John Connor (Eddie Furlong, remember him?) in guerilla warfare, computer hacking and more until an attempted terrorist attack lands her in the nuthouse. Her unyielding escape attempt remains one of the coolest things a woman has ever done on film, and the carnage doesn’t end there as she unloads all of her rage – and bullets – on a hapless scientist who doesn’t know he’s going to cause the end of the world. Hamilton and Cameron took a traditional feminine character trait – maternal instincts – and warped them into psychotic bloodlust at once believable, terrifying and awesome.

Kara “Starbuck” Thrace in “Battlestar Galactica” (creators Ronald D. Moore, David Eick et al, 2003-2009)

The role of Starbuck may have been strong enough for a man, but Katee Sackhoff proves that it was MADE for a woman. – “Battlestar Galactica”

It’s a little hard to imagine, now, how angry some people were that Starbuck was going to be played by a woman in the “Battlestar Galactica” remake. Especially since every one of those naysayers shut their f***ing face immediately following the pilot for the series turned Katee Sackhoff into an instant action hero and fanboy fantasy.

Cigar chomping, poker playing (well, the Battlestar version of poker anyway) and as likely to frak you as she is to frag you, Starbuck captured our hearts immediately and we watched as she went from rogue Viper pilot to go-to sniper to a crazy-ass Ahab locked in a room drawing mystical symbols as her tiny crew questioned her sanity on their mission to Earth. The show faltered when it came to Starbuck once in a while – Kat was never a better pilot, thank you very much, and they overestimated how much we cared about that love triangle – but Katee Sackhoff earned her place in the sci-fi legend pantheon as one of the greatest female action stars in history.

Katara in “Avatar: The Last Airbender” (creators Michael Dante DeMartino & Bryan Konietzko, 2005-2008)

Katara’s maternal instincts are off-set by her ability to kick-ass and bend the blood in your body. – “Avatar: The Last Airbender.”

Katara – whose last name I don’t think we ever caught – had quite a story arc in “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” which however M. Night Shyamalan’s movie turns out will remain one of the best television series of the last decade. (Seriously, it’s in the top two or three at least.) As voiced by “In Treatment’s” Mae Whitman, she was the voice of hope, reason and a surrogate mother for all the children orphaned by the Fire Nation. She was also a Waterbending child prodigy who stood up against the Northern Water Tribe’s sexist teaching practices.

Then, in the third and final season of the show, the Bloodbending begins. Katara is pushed to the brink by a ruthless Waterbending master who teaches our heroine how manipulate the circulatory system in her victims and turn them into puppets to be controlled at will. It’s actually more disturbing than it sounds. Katara’s innocence is tested by being placed on the frontlines of a great and deadly war, and somehow the experience matures, rather than corrupts her. And she gets to kick ass with the best of them.

Toph Bei Fong in “Avatar: The Last Airbender” (creators Michael Dante DeMartino & Bryan Konietzko, 2005-2008)

Toph stands her ground and mountains do as she says. – “Avatar: The Last Airbender.”

Incidentally, that “best of them” that Katara gets to fight with? That’s Toph Bei Fong, the self-professed “Greatest Earthbender in the Who Ever Lived.” She’s also a little blind girl who “sees” with Earthbending, feeling vibrations in the ground and reacting accordingly. As voiced by Jessie Flower, she has as powerful a personality as you’re likely to find in any female action hero, as espoused by her Earthbending teaching methods which revolve around being more stubborn than a boulder. Seriously, because otherwise that boulder won’t do what you want it to do.

Toph stands her ground and mountains do as she says. – “Avatar: The Last Airbender.”

It may seem like cheating to place two characters from the same series in the same list, but you know what? How many great female action heroes are there? Not enough, and yet “Avatar” had two of them. Toph is at the center of most of the really great action sequences in “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” despite only appearing the two seasons of the show. She’s also notable for being the brunt of “blind” jokes that are both funny and inoffensive, because she can handle it. “I can’t see a thing!” “Oh no! What a nightmare!”

  • Kate Ebneter

    I realize that you’re talking about film/TV here, but it seems only fair to point out that Trinity is a thinly-disguised ripoff of Molly, from William Gibson’s Sprawl series.

  • http://calitreview.com/author/william_bibbiani William Bibbiani

    I love The Matrix as much as the next guy but let’s be honest… there isn’t an original bone in its body. Very well done, but William Gibson, Philip K. Dick and Grant Morrison – quite famously – each did it first.

  • http://mattsmithonfilm.blogspot.com Matthew Smith

    I’m glad you put the Resident Evil flicks in there. While I’m not a huge fan of the third, I think the first two are solid, and I’m actually kind of excited to see the next one coming up. But, it may just be because of my personal obsession with Milla Jovovich…hmm, now there’s an article idea.

  • http://lastairbenderfans.com Eduardo P.

    The +1 for River Tam is canceled out by your -1 for leaving off Beatrix Kiddo. Seriously. However, for the inclusion of both Katara and Toph, this list gets my overall thumbs up. Avatar: The Last Airbender’s Azula would also stack up formitably in any list of Action Villainesses (if that is a word).

  • M.angel

    well Ripley is classic and kara thrace rulzzzzzzz :)
    but all the rest – no competition

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