In the climactic scene of Hanna, the thriller out this month from Atonement director Joe Wright, a CIA operative chases the film's young protagonist: aiming, shooting, missing, climbing some scaffolding, shooting and missing again. It's familiar action-movie territory—one character unloading enough ordnance for a small army, the other somehow scampering away unscathed. Only this time, the hunter and the hunted are both women.
For years we've been on first-name terms with our male action stars: Sly. Bruce. Jean-Claude. Ah-nold. But until recently, you could count the memorable female action heroes in mainstream American movies on one hand: Sigourney Weaver as the smart, self-possessed Ellen Ripley in the Alien franchise; Linda Hamilton as the reluctant, super-buff Sarah Connor in Terminator 2; Uma Thurman as the barbarously vengeful Bride in Kill Bill: Volumes 1 and 2. Women were usually on the receiving end of the action—rescued, ogled, or swept off their feet—but now they're often the instigators. In addition to Hanna (Saoirse Ronan plays a teen assassin; Cate Blanchett, the agent trying to capture her), there's Zack Snyder's Sucker Punch, a hyper-stylized tale about a group of young women (Emily Browning, Abbie Cornish, Jena Malone, and Vanessa Hudgens) who must battle samurai and serpents to escape a mental hospital. Then there's Steven Soderbergh's Haywire, out this summer, in which a female black-ops soldier (mixed-martial-arts fighter Gina Carano) seeks revenge for a past betrayal. Finally, in David Fincher's upcoming adaptation of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, an English-language remake of the 2009 Swedish hit, Rooney Mara tortures male sexual predators in a variety of imaginative ways.
"We've had this pop-culture icon of the helpless heroine who's the victim," Snyder says. "Usually you put this female in the middle of the movie to protect or to save, but that notion is now becoming exhausted." Future film historians may come to regard 2010 as the year the action movie ceased to be a de facto male genre. Angelina Jolie, who already had the Lara Croft movies, Mr. & Mrs. Smith, and Wanted under her gun belt, starred in Salt as a possible double agent with inscrutable motives—a part originally intended for Tom Cruise. In Robert Rodriguez's "Mexploitation" flick Machete, Jessica Alba, Michelle Rodriguez, and Lindsay Lohan (cloaked in a nun's habit and packing a pistol) showed they were as capable of bringing the fight as the boys. As a gun-slinging retired assassin in the campy CIA romp Red, Helen Mirren proved that a sexagenarian can inflict serious damage too. Most noteworthy of all was Hit-Girl, the pint-size, purple-haired, foul-mouthed ("Okay, you cunts, let's see what you can do now") 11-year-old vigilante at the center of the comic-book satire Kick-Ass, arguably the ur-film of the trend.
This vogue for female assailants is partly a shrewd box-office strategy. "We've seen a ton of male action heroes," says Lorenzo di Bonaventura, who produced Salt and Red. "With a woman, you can't predict the moves—it's still fresh." Peter Biskind, author of Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, puts it more harshly: "Female heroines are an attempt to squeeze the last dollar or drop of blood out of that genre." These films may also be a ploy to ensnare the teen-girl market, a demographic with significant disposable income and the power to push a film to box-office success (their beloved Twilight series has earned $1.8 billion so far). "This is a pathetic attempt to draw young girls," says Lynda Obst, a producer of The Siege, Sleepless in Seattle, and Flashdance. "Hollywood is saying to them, 'Look! You're an action star too!'"
Yet the fact that female viewers (and the studio execs pandering to them) can imagine women in these roles surely means broader cultural forces are at work. One of those is the artistic coming of age of a generation of directors raised on the proto-feminist films of James Cameron (in Aliens, even the monster is female). "Those are, like, my movies," Snyder says. "I remember Linda Hamilton in the second Terminator movie, sitting there at the picnic table with those crazy glasses, cleaning the gun. The image is burned into my brain. And I was like, 'Man, Linda Hamilton is fucking awesome.'" Snyder has built a career channeling the enthusiasms of viewers like himself—the fanboys who flood Comic-Con, that annual conference of geeks, and live to gawk at attractive women kicking ass. "Sucker Punch," Obst notes, "is an example of Zack Snyder trying to do what he does and see if boys and girls will come."
Movies like Sucker Punch are, of course, being made at a time when many women are surpassing men professionally, educationally, and financially: Men sustained more than 80 percent of domestic job losses during the recent downturn; more women than men are now earning undergraduate and doctoral degrees; and single twentysomething women in metropolitan areas are paid more on average than their male peers. Perhaps our onscreen fantasies are beginning to reflect offscreen realities.
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Another sign that a cultural shift is afoot: None of these films are diluted, feminized versions of typical action fare. (Remember Halle Berry's Catwoman, forced to fight a cosmetics-industry conspiracy?) "You have to treat an action hero as gender-nonspecific," di Bonaventura says. "A lot of the problems that have occurred in trying to create female action heroes have been because they were portrayed differently than a male action hero." Jolie's Salt character is as fierce and combative as any man, projecting a frightening clinical relentlessness, á la the Terminator or Jason Bourne. She just has to kick off her heels before she fights. Indeed, when you think of viable successors to the icons of the eighties and nineties, there's only one actor—male or female—with whom we're on a first-name basis: Angelina. No one else possesses that old-school macho swagger.
The million-dollar question is, where are her charismatic male counterparts? "There certainly haven't been any electrifying male action stars to come along," says former Variety editor Peter Bart. "There are a bunch of young guys who almost became big stars and then didn't." Even actors who have successfully wooed audiences in other genres haven't proved themselves able to carry an action movie (see Jake Gyllenhaal in Prince of Persia or Edward Norton in The Incredible Hulk). The brow lifts and cheek implants on florid display in last year's The Expendables, in which a near-geriatric group of male actors celebrated their last hurrah, amounted to a convincing argument that the genre's founding fathers are reluctant to pass the mantle. But maybe that's because there aren't any young bucks to receive it.
Some blame squishy, effete American culture for the mysterious lack of plausibly masculine specimens. "American men aren't men on the screen," John Papsidera, who cast the last two Batman movies, recently remarked when asked why plum superhero parts so rarely go to American actors. "Kids are raised like veal," he added, chalking up the problem to excessive coddling. Philip Noyce, the director of Salt, who's currently "looking for some masculine man" to cast in a new ABC pilot, says the best candidates he's seen have been Australian. "They're growing up less protected and with the ability to express themselves physically in daily life, which makes them more in touch with their athleticism," he explains.