Haywire, Stephen Soderbergh’s bone-crunching action movie starring mixed martial arts fighter-turned-actress Gina Carano hasn’t made its budget back yet, but Carano’s just signed up to star in another action movie, this one from director John Stockwell, who helmed surfing flick Blue Crush and thriller Into the Blue. Saorsie Ronan, who first came on the scene as a nosy child in period movie Atonement turned to action as a teenaged assassin in Hanna, signed up to star in Stephenie Meyer’s science fiction thriller The Host, and just, to some commentators’ surprise, just committed to star in a third action movie. Hailee Steinfeld, who came to prominence as a girl hunting her father’s killer in the Coen brothers’ remake of True Grit will have another chance to hone her action chops playing female child soldier Petra in the adaptation of science fiction classic Ender’s Game. And Chloe Moretz’s outings as a pint-sized, foul-mouthed superhero in Kick Ass and a vampire in Let Me In haven’t prevented her from playing sweet and girlish in movies like Hugo. IConsidered together, that’s a pretty incredible crop of young action heroines on the rise. And it’s fascinating to contemplate what their collective impact could be on the industry.
In the past, it’s seemed like we can really only have one major female action star at a time, and that taking on that role can come with some limitations. Sigourney Weaver’s had that lock for her generation, and even when she takes on lighter fare, she ends up playing a heavy, or a character defined by her aggression. In You Again, ostensibly a female comedy, she’s a grown-up high school mean girl. In Red Lights, a paranormal thriller that was picked up out of Sundance, she’s a scientist defined by her intellectual certainty: she has a son, but the movie never gives us even the slightest inkling of a husband or partner or an explanation of whether she had her son on her own in the first place. It’s never a bad thing for an actress to get those kind of roles—I can’t say how excited I am to see Weaver play a vampire queen in Amy Heckerling’s Vamps along with Krysten Ritter and Alicia Silverstone—but being a competent action star shouldn’t mean that an actress can’t also nail a romantic comedy (or her male co-star in that action movie). Angelina Jolie’s allowed slightly greater range in her action roles, but seduction tends to get treated as part of her killer toolkit. When she takes on non-action fare, it tends to be as a historical figure like Mariane Pearl, or to play a woman in a different kind of extremis, as she did in Changeling.
I’d be curious to see if these younger actresses coming up a generation or a generation and a half behind Jolie can forge a new course, where they can do action movies and work in other genres. Some of it may simply be a chops issue: Jolie is just not a very funny actress, where as Moretz has charisma to burn in that particular space. And it would be nice to have female action heroes for whom action is an expression of other concerns. In the Mission Impossible movies, Ethan Hunt’s ass-kicking gets to be an expression of concern for his wife. James Bond’s womanizing and his action as a spy are both expressions of his lack of regard for himself—Daniel Craig’s elevated the act to a kind of exploration of self-harm. So it would be nice to see more female action characters with larger concerns other than lioness mode, who are allowed to protect people and interests other than small children. While I’m not a huge fan of the way The Hunger Games books ended, I do think that’s precisely the kind of franchise that could wed a woman’s ability to be a credible killer to a complex larger set of concerns.
It would also be nice to see more creative thinking about how to direct action sequences. I’m fine with certain female action stars getting choreographed the same way that men do, if they’ve got the stature for it to be plausible that they can plow through a crowd of heavies. But I also think it’s worth considering what kind of approaches slighter women would have to take to get the same result as male action stars who are bigger than them. Are there different schools of martial arts that would tip the balance? More inventive use of equipment? Differentials in vulnerabilities that female fighters could exploit? There are physical differences between men and women, and fight choreographers should think of that as an opportunity to try new things rather than as a reason to treat women as if they aren’t plausible action stars.