“I wanted her to be the female Dirty Harry,” says Milla Jovovich – very un-Alice-like in stylish pumps and full makeup – while doing promotional rounds for Resident Evil: The Final Chapter. “I think she’s this iconic, mysterious ‘guy riding off into the sunset’ sort of character, but like a sci-fi version.”
With this vivid description, Jovovich could be talking about no one but Alice, the enduring hero of Sony/Screen Gems’ phenomenally successful sci-fi/action franchise which over the course of five films has grossed nearly a billion dollars worldwide. Though earlier sci-fi/action heroines like Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley (Alien) and Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor (The Terminator) paved the way for women in the genre, when Jovovich signed on for the first Resident Evil in 2001, female-driven action films in Hollywood were still few and far between.
“When we made the first Resident Evil, you would never have been able to get this movie made in Hollywood. …to have women be at the forefront of the action,” Jovovich continues. “I mean, you couldn’t pay somebody to make that movie.”
One undeniable factor that tipped the scales in the project’s favor was the blockbuster success of the Resident Evil video games, which guaranteed a built-in fan base for the feature-film version. While Alice was a character created specifically for the movie, one of the two playable characters in the very first Resident Evil game was Jill Valentine (played in the films by Sienna Guillory), a female member of the elite special forces unit known as S.T.A.R.S. “Even my little brother played Jill Valentine, you know?” notes Jovovich. “He was playing the girls as well.”
What makes the success of Resident Evil even more remarkable is that the films center on an entire stable of strong, capable, multicultural women, including allies/occasional enemies Rain Ocampo (Michelle Rodriguez), Ada Wong (Li Bingbing) and arguably the most fan-beloved of all, Ali Larter’s Claire Redfield, who has returned for her third go-round in The Final Chapter.
“I loved when I first read Claire because she was someone who was very calm,” says Larter of what originally attracted her to the character she debuted in the franchise’s third installment, Resident Evil: Extinction. “She was like a fearless leader.
“Milla has really spearheaded, and was one of the first women to frontline any action movies,” Larter continues. The fact that we’re now in our sixth one and still female-led, that’s the real story for me. And the fact that we haven’t been pitted against each other, that we haven’t fallen into those traps. We build each other up. We’re there to support each other. And I think that’s something that makes it different and really special.”
As far as director-writer-producer Paul W.S. Anderson – who helmed the first, fourth and fifth entries of the series and returns to direct The Final Chapter – is concerned, Jovovich is the central reason for the franchise’s massive success. “She’s so committed,” says the filmmaker, whom Jovovich married in 2009. “She really gives her all to these movies. In this film, there’s a scene where we hang her upside down, we beat on her. She’ll go through any physical discomfort for the good of the film. What you need for a film like this is an actor who will be fully committed, because she makes you believe the world.”
Perhaps most striking for an action franchise centered on women, Alice and her female allies rarely talk about men – unless said talk involves taking down the diabolical likes of Umbrella head honchos Albert Wesker and Dr. Isaacs. In this way, they call to mind such iconic male action heroes as Steve McQueen, Sylvester Stallone and, yes, Clint Eastwood in their tendency to use the fewest amount of words possible to get their point across.
“That’s what I feel these characters are. They’re harkening back to the Clint Eastwoods of the world,” says Anderson, who counts himself an avid fan of the films featuring Eastwood’s Man With No Name and tough-guy icon Steve McQueen. Adds Jovovich, “When you watch those kind of movies, especially from the ’70s, the hero always just had this attitude. And it wasn’t about talking too much. It was actually about cutting any dialogue that just didn’t seem to need to be there essentially. And that was a big inspiration for Alice.”
As the films’ impressive box-office totals prove, audiences – both male and female – are more than willing to shell out their hard-earned money to see women warriors do battle with evildoers, and as a result Alice has become the most prolific action heroine of the 21st century. As Anderson points out, an argument could be made that she helped pave the way for more female-led action movies to get the Hollywood greenlight.
“I think it definitely has had an influence,” says the director. “Hollywood is an industry that follows the money. And if you can make money out of women [action heroes], Hollywood’s gonna do it. I think they needed an example, though. And I think when Resident Evil started to really kick and be successful, I think it kinda made it easier for studios to put other women as the lead of other movies.”