Originally for this piece, I was going to try to pick my 10 favorite female-led action movies for your usual timely listicle, set to coincide with today's release of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. But inevitably, those just turn into "__ Number of Movies I Could Remember in Said Category." And let's face it, you guys get enough of my opinions as it is. So instead, I asked a handful of friends and some of the Uproxx gang to each choose one movie, that way you get people talking about films they really like, instead of just me listing off a bunch that I half remember. So here they are, 10 films with female protagonists that we like better than The Hunger Games. I saved mine for last. (This is what we in the biz call a tease).
The Terminator, by Danger Guerrero
If we were really the fair and just society we like to tell ourselves we are during political rallies that feature lots of tiny American flags pinned to lapels and furiously waved in the air, the Terminator franchise would have been titled Sarah Connor: Badass. But no, Arnold Schwarzenegger and his sunglasses-wearing, catchphrase-spouting, 18-total-lines-of-dialogue-in-the-first-movie-having ass got top billing, above the title, as the futuristic murder robot. THE TITULAR CHARACTER SAID LESS THAN 100 WORDS IN THE WHOLE MOVIE AND WE LET THE ACTOR WHO PLAYED HIM BECOME A MULTIMILLIONAIRE, MULTI-TERM GOVERNOR OF OUR MOST POPULOUS STATE. Meanwhile, Linda Hamilton carried the movies like they were a fetus that was destined to save the world.
This is a bunch of hooey. We should all be ashamed.
Buffy, by Matt Ufford
Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a fast, fun, campy action comedy. That's reason enough to watch it, but the movie's real value is as a Polaroid of a fleeting and forgettable slice of American pop culture: the early '90s. Reality Bites and Singles overtly tried to portray a grungy zeitgeist, but Buffy is a more accurate picture of early-'90s pop culture, likely by accident. Witness:
- The Valley Girl stereotype had been around for a decade, but Buffy offered the first deeper twist on the character. It wasn't the direction writer Joss Whedon wanted for Buffy, but it served as a precursor to the Deep Valley Girl later perfected by Alicia Silverstone in Clueless.
- Luke Perry, at the peak of his fame from 90210, broke away from his role as handsome high school renegade Dylan to play Pike, a handsome high school renegade WITH A SOUL PATCH (little differences matter).
- Paul Reubens steals most of his scenes as a one-armed vampire. At the time, it was a huge deal because it was his first role since getting arrested for masturbating in an adult theater in Florida in 1991, which is itself a testament to pre-internet America. ("Well, you see, before you watch porn at your computer and whack off whenever you felt like it, you had to go to a theater to watch porn, where you could get arrested if the cops were bored.")
- The soundtrack featured C+C Music Factory, Matthew Sweet, and Toad the Wet Sprocket. That sentence deserves its own '90s nostalgia post on BuzzFeed.
Of course, the problem with Buffy is that you can't reflect on it in an online forum without one of Whedon's zealots showing up to tell you how much better the TV show was -- how Whedon walked off the movie because his vision for Buffy was ruined, how the TV show fulfilled that vision, how a show that produced 144 episodes over seven seasons had richer characters than an 86-minute movie.
Well, okay. But Kristy Swanson's athletic frame makes her more believable as an ass-kicker than skinny Whedon muses like Sarah Michelle Gellar or Summer Glau could ever be, and I happen to prefer Luke Perry's sarcasm to David Boreanaz's weird potato head. Regardless, an original thing can still be fun even if it was later improved upon. Yes, even if it's from the '90s.
The Long Kiss Goodnight, By Burnsy
It’s safe to say that by 1996, when people heard the name Renny Harlin, their eyes made ridiculous explosion sounds as they rolled back into their heads, thanks to the hilariously terrible Cutthroat Island that was among the worst films of the decade. I like to think that’s why The Long Kiss Goodnight is so often overlooked when it comes to the best action movies of the 1990s. In fact, if VH1 had me on one of those, “Hey, Wanna Hear My Jokes About The 90s?” nostalgia shows, I’d be like, “Remember when Samuel L. Jackson said to Geena Davis, ‘Back when we first met, you were all like, ‘Oh phooey, I burned the darn muffins.’ Now, you go into a bar, ten minutes later, sailors come runnin' out. What up with that?’ That was pretty cray-cray!”
When the movie hit theaters in ’96, my friend told me that its screenplay was the most expensive of all-time (no idea if that was true), and that the movie’s writer was this amazing action genius and this was going to be the best movie we’d ever see. Of course, I had no clue who Shane Black was back then, so I didn’t really care who was making a ton of money for writing a movie, as much I thought, “If I’m giving up $7 to see this movie, it better be f*cking good. That’s my St. Ide’s Special Brew money we’re talking about.” As it turns out, this movie would become my favorite of Black’s many great screenplays, despite the fact that he once claimed the script was butchered by studio rats (my words).
But this is about the heroine, Samantha Caine or Charly Baltimore, played by Geena Davis, who up until this point in her career wasn’t exactly blockbuster action movie material. I’d appreciated her in comedies like Beetlejuice, Transylvania 6-5000 (hot vampire lady changed my young life), Fletch and especially the sorely underrated Quick Change, but an action star? Baby, please. I couldn’t really picture Dottie Hinson running around and kicking ass, and even when I watched this movie on Showtime just last week, I still kind of laughed at the idea.
Davis absolutely slaughtered the role, though. I mean, it’s remarkable how well she handled the part, from the ass-kicking to the dialogue, all while managing to look like one of the hottest women on the planet in the process. Seriously, whoever picked out the short blonde hair deserved a SPIKE Guy’s Choice Award. Because of Davis’s performance, any time an Angelina Jolie or a Scarlett Johansson or a Jennifer Lawrence shows up to kick a little ass, I immediately think of Davis telling Craig Bierko that she’s going to watch him die screaming.
In the hands of any other director, I think this movie may be considered a legend in the action genre. At the very least, though, if I had to rank the most ass-kickingest female action stars of all-time, Davis would be my numero uno.
(Fun Fact: Some people believe that The Long Kiss Goodnight tried to warn us about 9/11. Haha, people on the Internet, you so crazy!)
Alien, by Dan Seitz
“Alien” was a lot of things; an announcement that there was more to Ridley Scott than pretty pictures; a gritty remake of a movie called “It! The Terror From Beyond Space!” that took the concept and turned it into something genuinely disturbing instead of cheesy; and a movie that played a key part in launching the practical-effects heavy horror of the 1980s.
But it was also the movie that launched Sigourney Weaver into star territory, and for good reason. Weaver's Ripley was a female character rare in the movies at that point; she was a character, not a type, and her hard edge combined with her humanity made her somebody to root for as the Xenomorph kept picking off her crewmates. And, in the end, she isn't rescued; Ripley may be terrified, but she knows help isn't coming, so she saves herself, making her a lot more endearing than most “Final Girls” from slasher movies to come. It helped that she had an affection for cats.
“Alien” has been overanalyzed for decades; having a hugely successful movie with a lot of Freudian implications will do that. But scrape away the critical cruft and grad school overanalysis, and what you have is a great horror movie centered around a great character played by a great actress.
Surf Nazis Must Die, by Alison Stevenson
Before there was that hobo with a shotgun, there was Eleanor "Mama" Washington--a mother seeking revenge on the surf Nazis who killed her son. Rarely does a film feature an old woman kicking ass and taking names. "Surf Nazis Must Die" is an extremely hilarious exploitation film--one of those “so bad it's good” sort of films--but still more interesting and entertaining than any thought-provoking drama about love, or the human condition or whatever.
Gail Neely, who plays Mama Washington, is never the butt of the joke. She portrays a woman that is hardened by the death of her son. Rather, it is everyone around her that is a weird-as-f*ck goofball.
Wearing a sweater poncho and pink sunglasses, she rides her motorcycle to the beach where the surf Nazis hang and they have an epic final showdown, which of course involves a speed boat.
I think about Mama Washington every time I'm watching an action film. She would have been the best James Bond, seriously. “Surf Nazis Must Die” is my favorite Troma film because of Gail Neely. She has some great lines, like when she tells the guy selling her guns that she's “interested in something that'll take the head off a honky at 20 paces”.
I'm sure that if Hollywood were to remake this film right now, it would probably star Halle Barry, who is 47 years old (that's 76 in Hollywood actress years). Or maybe a comedic actor in a fat-suit and old-age make-up ie Eddie Murphy, Martin Lawrence, or Tyler Perry. Regardless, it will be a travesty because no one will do it like Neely did.
True Romance, by Laremy Legel
It's not as though I think The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is completely without merit. I don't know about the rest of these jabronis, but I liked the sequel better than the original, and I didn't even mind the original all that much. Sure, sure, we can all note that Battle Royale is about ten times the film HG will ever be, if only for its unrelenting depravity, but for a film that's mass-marketed and likely focused-grouped into the ground, The Hunger Games: Catching Commerce could have been a hell of a lot worse. For realsy.
Still, that doesn't make it the best EVAR female-led film, now does it? No, it surely does not, not even close. For if the premise today is "Female-led films better than The Hunger Games!" (and that's actually what Vince emailed, like he was organizing a sorority car wash) then we've got to go we've got to go back, way back, two decades back, to a little film both Quentin Tarantino and I like to call True Romance.
Now then, as I imagine the majority of FilmDrunkards are teenage runaways, and without access to laser disc players or RedBox, I should probably set the scene.
True Romance was Tarantino written, Tony Scott directed, with Patricia Arquette bringing the lady parts. Her name is Alabama, and she's a completely destructive force of nature.
No, no, not that Alabama. This one:
There are many levels of awesomeness in this scene, and it's not even the best one, Alabama-wise. First off, she's not afraid to fall in love. Let that be a lesson to you young folks, especially the runaways. Second, she's very aware, even at her tender age, that she doesn't want to be perceived as "Florida white trash" (at 1:57 of the video), though clearly if everyone felt that way then we'd all be out of a job, as Florida leads the Internet in things we can make fun of (just ask Burnsy).
But the main difference between Katniss and Alabama is that 'Bama is fearless, and she meets her fate with absolute pluckiness. Katniss broods over having to hurt people, is constantly worried about the future, and protecting her kin, but do you ever really see her suffer? Or take proactive steps to help out her situation? Nope. As for Alabama? She knows it's all in the game, and in her most desperate moments she shows off the most compelling quality a human can bring to the table: resourcefulness. Alabama stares her fate right in the face, and then she jacks it up in the toes. And the head. How messed up is the crucial scene of which I'm speaking? The only copy I could find of it is in dubbed German, and it's all the more horrifying because of that. Florida and Germany in the same column, man, we're on a roll.
Breathe this in, because there's no sullen world-weary look on Alabama's visage, no perfect teeth, no franchise. She's the original down woman, and her full-throated embracing of life, all of it, the darkness and the light, is what makes her so vibrant, and dare I say, a role model. No, she wasn't involved in a love triangle, or putting on a show for the gub'ment cameras, or scrounging around in the woods for rabbits. Instead she's putting out, trafficking in stolen narcotics, and leaving the call girl life far behind her. She's willing to give you transpo out of a crime scene and into Mexico, even as you're blinded, and yet still find the time to tell you you're cool. Providing you affirmation and meeting your travel needs? Fellas and gals, I think you'll agree, they don't make 'em like this anymore.
Sure, Patricia Arquette's Alabama could have written something like "Lean In", but she didn't need to. Because she was too busy actually DOING IT, and with a goddamn corkscrew.
Madea, by Matt Lieb
That’s right, Madea. Not to be confused with Euripides's Medea, daughter of King Aeëtes of Colchis, niece of Circe, and granddaughter of the sun god Helios. I’m talking about Tyler Perry’s Madea, daughter of "Big Mabel" Murphy & Frederick Baker Sr., niece of "Little" Johnson, "Big" Johnson, "Wide" Johnson, & "Crooked" Johnson, and grandmother figure to the entire southwest Atlanta ghetto. Madea, although played by a man, is one of the strongest female characters in film today.
I want to preface my choice by saying this: Many of the people who shit on Tyler Perry have never seen any of his films. And until very recently, I was one of those people. I had been making fun of Tyler Perry for years without having actually seen more than a few trailers and ads for his films and television shows. The most consecutive screentime I had ever seen from Perry was during his cameo in J.J. Abram’s Star Trek (2009), which was as equally jarring to me as Cornel West’s cameo in the Matrix sequels. But I had never seen Tyler Perry in his element. I decided to change that a few months ago by watching Diary of a Mad Black Woman (2005), the film that rocketed him into stardom. And then I watched, Madea Goes to Jail (2009), Madea’s Witness Protection (2012), Why Did I Get Married Too (2010), and finally I Can Do Bad All by Myself (2009). After all that, I can now say with total confidence in my educated opinion that I think he is a pretty terrible filmmaker. No surprise there. HOWEVER, his character Madea is actually pretty great. Not only is she funny, but her eagerness to use violence in order to solve disputes puts her right up there with any of the strong female characters on this listicle. At least, strong is the more literal sense of the word.
Madea is an imposing figure. Other than being tall and buxom, Madea is often down right frightening to all those who oppose her. Perry’s films that feature Madea usually showcase her threatening violence against one person or another. She threatens everyone from criminals to ill-mannered family members. In the film I Can Do Bad All by Myself (2009), Madea tells a group of misbehaving children “I will hit you so hard that your cranium, and your skull and your urethra tube will all be tied up together inside of each other. You wouldn’t be able to do nothing but pee and run.” This leaves the children speechless as they try to comprehend the image Madea has just presented. The physiological inaccuracy of the placement of the urethra actually serves to make this threat absolutely horrifying. But in her defense, these children were talking back to their mother. That ain’t right.
Madea is a multiple felon and often carries a gun. Although she is hesitant to use it for murder, she brandishes it regularly & without any fear of police intervention. She has stated numerous times that she “ain’t scared a no po po.” And she truly isn’t. According to wikipedia:
“Madea has a lifelong criminal record that began at age 9 with a charge of petty theft. It is also reported that Madea was charged with her first felony at this age, and her crimes began progressing to illegal gambling at age 18, which later evolved into check fraud, identity theft, insurance fraud (presumably related to her 9 deceased husbands), assault and attempted murder...”
Madea is a serial killer. In case you missed it, Madea has 9 deceased husbands and has been brought up on charges of insurance fraud. The implication there being that she married and murdered at least 9 people in order to collect on the insurance policy. Fraud is a common theme with Madea. In Diary of a Mad Black Woman (2005), she admits her fraudulent activities while simultaneously threatening to murder her own brother. “I know you my brother, and the only reason I’m lettin’ you stay at my house is to get yo check, but I can still get yo check if you come up missing. Just keep trying me, you goin’ end up in the Chattahoochee River.” Being that she has probably killed before, it amazes me that Joe doesn’t attempt to flee but instead threatens to throw battery acid in her face and give her “a chemical peel.”
No female character in the last decade is stronger, more violent, more bloodthirsty, or more ruthless than Tyler Perry’s Madea. But she is not a sociopath. She is capable of love and compassion. Madea even occasionally sees beyond the cycle of violence. She understands that an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind. Or as Madea would put it, “"when you gettin' got and somebody done got you and you go get them, when you get em', everybody's gon' get got." Word.
Hanna, by Kris Maske
My original idea was to outline my fan script for the Entourage movie starring Kate Upton, but "our" Vince shot that down. Thankfully I remembered I really liked Joe Wright's Hanna. The side-by-side archery-themed posters pretty much tell the story why it belongs here. Hanna is a gritty semi-realistic action film. All things Hunger Games are glossy and targeted at kids at the mall.
Hanna bookends with a genetically-engineered teenage girl assassin telling her prey "I just missed your heart," so yeah, it's almost entirely devoid of emotion and sentiment and the film is all the better for it. It's been described as a dark fairy tale, and it really is the antithesis of all fantasy re-imaginings and young adult adventures we've been bombarded with of late. The action is crisp and as believable as it can be. There's a distinct psychological/rite of passage element present that Hanna doesn't beat you over the head with, not to mention a relentless Chemical Brothers soundtrack that fuels the momentum. Simply put, Hanna is a well-acted and well-crafted one-off film that serves as a refreshing palate cleanser for all the bubblegum action and Literary Themes for Dummies considered to be in the same genre. Would recommend.
And because I know you're all wondering, Kate Upton is a cyborg from the not-so-distant future brought back to suffocate them all. Oh, and here's a Hanna GIF.
The Descent, by Dustin Rowles
Before Neil Marshall directed the "Battle of Blackwater" episode of Game of Thrones, he wrote and directed 2005's The Descent, one of the best horror films of the 2000s. The idea behind the film was fairly simple: A group of female friends go on a caving exploration, but once they become trapped in the cave, they are pursued by a very strange, terrifying, and mysterious brand of predator. It is claustrophobic. It is intense. It is gory. It is brutal and nasty, and what makes it so remarkable is that it's not a bunch of dudes who make bad decisions. It's a group of competent, bad-ass women who attempt to put down the threat, savage warrior princesses battling the feral forces of nature. It is brilliant, though you should make sure to see the UK cut, because the American ending is watered down for pussies.
Winter's Bone, by Vince Mancini
I saw Winter's Bone three years ago on a cold afternoon in Park City, Utah, and I've been madly in love with Jennifer Lawrence ever since. That made it the obvious choice for this exercise.
I saw it at its US premiere, knowing nothing about it, which isn't surprising given that movies with a lot of hype generally don't premiere in the afternoon in the middle of the week. I wasn't even trying to see it, I only ended up there because I didn't get in to whatever movie I was trying to see that morning. Winter's Bone just happened to be playing in the right place in the right time and was easy to get into because no one had heard of it. Based on the bare-bones synopsis and frowny-face picture in the program, I expected the usual festival fare, a movie that everyone calls "subtle" and "lyrical" and "unflinching" because no one has the heart to say that it's dull as shit. If it sounds like I'm remembering every detail of that day as if it was the day I met my future wife, it's because the movie I saw absolutely kicked my balls in.
In my mind, there's a disconnect between what I think of as a "strong female character" and the kinds of strong female characters male screenwriters like to pat themselves on the back for writing. To me, writing a strong female lead doesn't involve writing a male action hero and then drawing boobs on her at the last minute. For one thing, watching some 110-pound model chick beat up gangs of giant henchman isn't that believable. Come to think of it, it's not that interesting when guys do it either. It's usually impressive acrobatics and over-the-top stunts that make it interesting.
I give Katniss Everdeen a slight pass in this regard, because although her fighting skills are an important part of her character, they seem less important than her mental and emotional strength. Plus, I see archery as a somewhat feminine pursuit in the first place, or else why would that ugly old woman Ted Nugent be so into it? (At this point I'd like to restate my offer to fight Ted Nugent. I desperately want to fight Ted Nugent).
Where was I? Right, Winter's Bone. One of the things that makes Winter's Bone so great and probably led to Jennifer Lawrence becoming a big star is the way she can exude toughness at some basic level, without talking a lot of shit or beating anyone up. She's just a tough broad (which makes her even hotter). I get so annoyed with narratives where we constantly have to take stock of the heroine's fragile mental state (hi, Homeland), that it's endlessly refreshing to watch a film like Winter's Bone with a heroine who can suck it up and GET. SHIT. DONE.
In Winter's Bone, Jennifer Lawrence, in the course of her character saving her whole damned family, guts a squirrel (which she actually did for real), and -- spoiler alert here --
...helps cut off her dead dad's hand with a chainsaw. Don't watch this if you haven't seen the movie, but this scene makes me squeal with girlish glee. In addition to Jennifer Lawrence, you get Dale Dickey, two awesome actresses and characters for the price of one. And I know this article was supposed to be about awesome heroines and not what makes my particular boner throb, but it must be said that there are few things sexier than an unsqueamish woman.