Charlize Theron is no stranger when it comes to portraying characters with a special set of ass-kicking skills. On top of her standout performance in 2015's Mad Max: Fury Road comes Atomic Blonde, the action flick currently being hailed as 'the female John Wick'.
Based on the 2012 graphic novel, The Coldest City, Atomic Blonde follows Lorraine Broughton (Theron), a top-level spy for Mi6 who is tasked with retrieving a priceless dossier from Berlin, Germany. The film has garnered steady acclaim ahead of its wide release with many critics lauding Theron's portrayal of a dominating powerhouse that pummels through her opposition.
Atomic Blonde is a welcome addition to the roster of films that illustrate the capabilities of women without patronizing its audience. This roster includes the recent DC hit, Wonder Woman and the severely under-appreciated Hanna, whose characters offer powerful protagonists who just so happen to be female. While there are numerous examples of such characters, the following list will showcase five of the most historically significant to contemporary releases like Atomic Blonde.
Ellen Ripley, Alien (1979)
The original draft of Alien featured all the characters written as gender-neutral, which turned out to be a huge triumph for the film. Ellen Ripley is a character who could easily be either gender, because her skills have been created by her own volition, and aren't a result of the traits typically associated with gender.
Critics and fans laud Ridley Scott's Alien for its depiction of intelligent characters that make rational decisions during times of distress. Ripley's decisions ultimately determine the fate of the starship Nostromo, showing that she is the most capable crew member aboard the spacecraft. However, the film doesn't negate the abilities of others in order to elevate Ripley as a hero.
The fan favorite character was portrayed by Sigourney Weaver throughout the saga, with the first two Alien installments remaining the most popular by far. During an interview with Variety, Theron cited Ripley as an inspiration for her role as Lorraine in Atomic Blonde, discussing the pressures faced for women in a traditionally male role:
“I think we would be remiss not to acknowledge Sigourney Weaver [in Alien] and Linda Hamilton [in Terminator 2]... We’ve had moments like this, where women really showcase themselves and kind of break glass ceilings. And then we don’t sustain it. Or there’s one movie that doesn’t do well, and all of a sudden, no one wants to make a female-driven film.”
It's no surprise to hear that Ripley was a major influence on Theron's character, as many fans, critics and actors have recognized her as an inspirational feminist icon in the past. Having also mentioned Linda Hamilton's memorable performance in Terminator 2: Judgement Day, Sarah Connor is a similar figure who continues to inspire contemporary action films.
Sarah Connor, Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991)
Linda Hamilton's portrayal of Sarah Connor in 1984's The Terminator featured a weaker, inexperienced young woman who is suddenly thrust into an unimaginable situation wherein a monstrous killing machine is after her. You could even argue that the film plays on her vulnerability in order to create tension. However, Sarah Connor ultimately decides that she won't go down with a fight, making her one of cinema's strongest female characters throughout the franchise's second installment.
Sarah undergoes an incredible change when T2 rolls around, including a physical transformation and, most notably, the loss of her innocence. After witnessing the unrelenting damage he can cause, Sarah holds her own against the vicious T-1000 (Robert Patrick) during the film's climax.
Due to Hamilton's dedication to portraying an authentic bad-ass, there were certain instances where the actress didn't want her fellow actors to hold back during physical fight scenes. The actress even learned to pick a lock for the movie, refusing to "fake the shot" until she learned how to do it herself. If that doesn't scream hardcore, I have no idea what does.
Sarah's abilities do not rely solely on her physical prowess; her intelligence and will all unite to make her an admirable heroine. Theron echoed a similar dedication, having endured a cracked teeth and a bruised rib while shooting Atomic Blonde.
Leeloo, The Fifth Element (1997)
Leeloo is one of the key elements needed to keep the world intact. The Luc Besson flick remains beloved 20 years on due to its colorful characters and intriguing world. Leeloo's involvement in the film is of vital significance and her capabilities, both physically and intellectually, are jaw-dropping when you see how she manages to escape a room full of gawking men.
During an interview with Variety, The Fifth Element star Milla Jovovich revealed the sense of fulfillment she felt following the completion of the film:
"It was something that really opened up a whole new horizon for me in terms of what I was capable of... When I got through with ‘The Fifth Element’ I felt a bit like a superhero. I’d just come off being Leeloo for more than half a year of my life. I definitely didn’t want it to end. I think it very much pointed me in the direction my career would end up taking."
A major plot point involves Leeloo's relationship with Korben Dallas (Bruce Willis) and throughout all the instances of skepticism toward her, Leeloo sticks to her destiny by proving all the doubters wrong with Korben by her side. While she initially needs Korben for his navigational skills, their mutual adoration grows stronger as the film progresses. They work well as a team, but they're also more than capable on their own.
Trinity, The Matrix (1999)
Carrie-Anne Moss's portrayal of Trinity in the mind-bending (and spoon-bending!) Matrix trilogy is among the most memorable sci-fi characters in cinematic history. Her capabilities stretch much further than simply being a romantic counterpart for Neo (Keanu Reeves).
From the second she appears on screen, Trinity serves as the most valuable asset on the team by utilizing her physical and technical capabilities. Although Trinity arguably has the greatest fight scenes seen in The Matrix, her importance in the 'real world' are just as significant - most notably because she serves as the first mate on Morpheus's Nebuchadnezzar.
A huge factor in Trinity's success was down to the right actress. Fortunately, Moss went above and beyond, referring to the groundbreaking role as "a highlight of [her] life." During an interview with IGN, Moss remained humble and stated the importance of Alien's Ellen Ripley.
"I never really think of myself as the pioneer because I look at people like #SigourneyWeaver."
That being said, she still acknowledges the influence Trinity had on the action genre.
"I definitely acknowledge that 'The Matrix' and Trinity had an influence on female action-oriented characters in television and in film. I think it's awesome... When I did the first Matrix, after it came out, I had a woman come up to me and just thank me for Trinity because she was an action writer. She said she was getting really good opportunities now."
Despite her modesty, Trinity's influence on female representation in the action genre should not be understated. Similarly to what Ellen Ripley accomplished, Trinity illustrated the capabilities of a woman in the context of a sci-fi/action adventure. This included many tasks that are primarily associated with male roles, ranging from gun-slinging to technical repairs.
While being an inspiration for audiences and the genre as a whole, Trinity still managed to rock a full-leather ensemble - something that truly deserves our acclaim!
Beatrix Kiddo, Kill Bill: Volume 1 (2003)
Quentin Tarantino's has provided theaters with fully developed, intriguing heroines unlike any other. Uma Thurman's portrayal of the sword-wielding Bride who swears revenge against a team of assassins is the focal point of Kill Bill, resulting in a story that is as brutal as it is empowering.
Similarly to Moss's experience following the release of The Matrix, Thurman expressed the gratitude felt by many women who watched the film.
"Women would come up to me and they would say that somehow or other – they’d share a little bit — that that film helped them in their lives, whether they were feeling oppressed or struggling or had a bad boyfriend or felt badly about themselves, that that film released in them some survival energy that was helpful, and that is probably one of the most gratifying things that I have ever experienced in response to a piece of art."
The female-driven film boasts an array of talented female actors, such as Lucy Liu, Daryl Hannah and Vivica A. Fox. The strength these female characters possess captivates the audience with relentlessly graphic sequences. Every cast member is on their absolute A-game, and Beatrix Kiddo taught us some important life lessons.
With these characters in mind, filmmakers will hopefully continue to develop intriguing and powerful characters regardless of their gender. In recent months, there have been discussions regarding a female 007 in the franchise's future installments, while an all-female Ocean's reboot is set for release next summer. However, it's also imperative to continue creating original properties that push the envelope for female characters. None of the characters on this list came from previously established properties, so focusing on stories like Atomic Blonde and striving to create more Ellen Ripleys will surely provide greater opportunities for women to showcase their bad-ass cinematic presence.
What are some of your favorite female ass-kickers? Let me know in the comments below!