Beyond Badass: Female Action Heroes

Charlize Theron kicks A-List ass in Mad Max: Fury Road

It’s been a long, slow evolution. But like most change, when the moment hits, it hits with force. And it’s everywhere. Exhibit A: the badass female action hero. The road from Pam Grier’s shotgun wielding avenger in Coffy (1973) to Charlize Theron’s fearsome Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) has taken over forty years, but by now there’s no doubt that a woman can carry an action flick. And rock the house! TIFF is celebrating this signal achievement with a program called Beyond Badass: Female Action Heroes, and they’re showing some of the best.

Sigourney Weaver is the ultimate survivor in Ridley Scott’s Alien

Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley in Alien (1979) is one of my favourites, a classic role in one of the best movies of all time. Dan O’Bannon’s script was unique in not assigning gender to any of the Nostromo’s crew. So while Ripley very conceivably could have been a man, it is our great good fortune that she was not, and that Ridley Scott found Weaver to play her. She’s superb in the role, a relentless survivor, pragmatic and steely. The lack of a love interest in the film is scarcely noticeable, the dynamics of the crew interesting enough on their own. And once the alien itself is on board the huge, sparsely populated ship, all hell breaks loose in one of the best monster in a box movies ever. Interestingly, TIFF isn’t showing the sequel Aliens (1986), where James Cameron makes Ripley even more kickass, but also explicitly underlines a deep mothering instinct in her. Her protectiveness of little Newt (Carrie Henn), the sole colony survivor, is the emotional linchpin of that film, but it does take away from the conceptually genderless purity of the original.

Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor will stop at nothing to save her son and the future

Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor in Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) takes the role of fierce mother-protector even further, with the help of a certain Austrian robot from the future, of course. Fighting to keep her son John alive for the role he will play in humanity’s future salvation, she’s pumped up and formidable. A little crazy, too, but you’d get that way when nobody believes the harrowing truth of annihilation that only you have beheld. Uma Thurman in Kill Bill (Vol. 1 & 2) (2003-4), Angelina Jolie in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001), Zhang Ziyi’s balletic devastation in House of Flying Daggers (2004), Gina Carano’s brutal efficiency in Haywire (2011), there are some incredible roles gathered together here, with intensity and physicality certainly the equal of any male action star.

Pam Grier’s Coffy is relentless in her pursuit of the dealers in her town

“Though at times these films test the limits of feminism, they also inspire us to think about women’s roles on screen — and in society,” says Kiva Reardon, the programmer for the series. “By doing so, they go beyond badass and let us revel in the power of female physicality and the spectacle of women taking charge.” A few test the limits pretty far. Only the most ardent third wave feminist can make a great case for the undeniably transgressive Pam Grier in Coffy. As a nurse determined to wreak vengeance on the local drug trade that took down most of her family, she’s an unstoppable killing machine in the mold of Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry (1972) or Charles Bronson’s Paul Kersey (Death Wish (1974)). It’s a classic Blaxploitation flick, with pretty muddled politics. Sure, Grier kicks ass, and she is beautiful. She’s also assaulted by almost every character in the film, her tits popping out so frequently it’s a wonder director Jack Hill had her wear any clothes at all. But it’s undeniably her picture, and all her assailants die at her hand, even as it is an amazing window into the rampant sexism of the seventies.

Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa is the driving heart of Mad Max: Fury Road

The nagging problem of the badass female is how little these breakthroughs have translated into other areas. All of the films included in the program are directed by men. Jennifer Lawrence has hit the top of bankable stars, and it’ll be interesting to see how she fares outside of the heavy-hitting Hunger Games franchise. Today people are celebrating that Charlize Theron negotiated a salary equal to her costar Chris Hemsworth in the upcoming The Huntsman (2016), but it was only because of the Sony email leaks that she was able to get the leverage to do so. As you’re watching Imperator Furiosa so ably command the screen in Mad Max: Fury Road, don’t for a minute forget that she was paid less than Tom Hardy, certainly the titular hero but not the driver of the story. We’ve come a long way, but we’ve got a long way still to go.

Beyond Badass: Female Action Heroes started on October 1st and runs through to December 3rd. Pam Grier is going to be present to introduce screenings of three of her films, which is pretty damn exciting. Here’s a full list of the films:

Jackie Brown
dir. Quentin Tarantino | USA 1997 | 154 min. | 14A
Introduction by Pam Grier!
Quentin Tarantino pays homage to blaxploitation queen Pam Grier in this adaptation of the Elmore Leonard novel Rum Punch.
Thursday, October 1 at 9 p.m.

dir. Jack Hill | USA 1973 | 91 min. | R
Introduction by Pam Grier! 
Pam Grier stars as “the baddest one-chick hit squad that ever hit town” in director Jack Hill’s blazing blaxploitation classic.
Friday, October 2 at 6:30 p.m.

Foxy Brown
dir. Jack Hill | USA 1974 | 94 min. | R
Introduction by Pam Grier!
Pam Grier gives her all as the lethal lady who’s “brown sugar and spice — but if you don’t treat her nice, she’ll put you on ice!”
Friday, October 2 at 9:30 p.m.

dir. Ridley Scott | USA 1979 | 117 min. | R | Digital
Sigourney Weaver redefined the Hollywood heroine with her portrayal of the alien-battling Ellen Ripley in Ridley Scott’s immensely influential sci-fi horror film.
Sunday, October 4 at 6:45 p.m.

Kill Bill Vol. 1 
dir. Quentin Tarantino | USA 2003 | 111 min. | R | Digital
Uma Thurman slices and dices her way from L.A. to Tokyo in the first installment of Quentin Tarantino’s postmodern revenge-movie epic.
Wednesday, October 7 at 6:30 p.m. 

Kill Bill Vol. 2 
dir. Quentin Tarantino | USA 2004 | 136 min. | 18A | Digital
The Bride (Uma Thurman) completes her mission of vengeance in the concluding chapter of Quentin Tarantino’s revenge-movie diptych.
Wednesday, October 7 at 9 p.m. 

La Femme Nikita
dir. Luc Besson | France 1990 | 117 min. | R
Archival Print!
A scrawny and strung-out street kid (Anne Parillaud) is transformed into an elegant executioner in Luc Besson’s stylish Euro-thriller.
Friday, October 9 at 9:15 p.m.

Terminator 2: Judgment Day
dir. James Cameron | USA 1991 | 137 min. | 14A | 35mm
As a former waitress turned pistol-packing survivalist, Linda Hamilton offers one of the most formidable images of femininity to emerge from Hollywood in the nineties in this blockbuster sequel to the original Terminator.
Friday, October 23 at 9:45 p.m.

The Quick and the Dead
dir. Sam Raimi | USA 1995 | 107 min. | 14A | 35mm
Sharon Stone dons chaps and a Stetson to play a female gunslinger in Sam Raimi’s wildly stylized revisionist western.
Thursday, October 29 at 9 p.m.

Charlie’s Angels
dir. McG | USA 2000 | 98 min. | PG | 35mm
Cameron Diaz, Drew Barrymore and Lucy Liu star in this big-budget rehash of the 1970s TV series as a team of private investigators in the employ of a mysterious millionaire.
Tuesday, November 3 at 9:15 p.m.

House of Flying Daggers (Shi mian mai fu)
dir. Zhang Yimou | China/Hong Kong 2004 | 119 min. | 14A | 35mm
After becoming an international star with her lyrical but hard-hitting swordplay in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Zhang Ziyi once again played a blade-wielding woman at the centre of the action in Zhang Yimou’s luxurious martial-arts epic.
Friday, November 6 at 9 p.m.

dir. Steven Soderbergh | USA 2011 | 93 min. | 14A | 35mm
Former MMA fighter Gina Carano stars as a black-ops agent who goes rogue after being betrayed by her masters, in this lean and mean espionage thriller from director Steven Soderbergh.
Friday, November 13 at 9:15 p.m.

Lara Croft: Tomb Raider
dir. Simon West | USA/UK/Japan/Germany 2001 | 100 min. | PG | 35mm
Angelina Jolie cemented her status as an international superstar playing globe-trotting, gun-toting adventurer Lara Croft in this big-screen adaptation of the massively popular video game.
Tuesday, November 17 at 9 p.m.

Resident Evil
dir. Paul W.S. Anderson | UK/Germany 2002 | 100 min. | R | 35mm
Milla Jovovich stars as zombie-slaying heroine Alice in the first installment of the long-running action-horror franchise.
Friday, November 20 at 9:15 p.m.

Mad Max: Fury Road
dir. George Miller | Australia/USA 2015 | 120 min. | 14A | Digital
Digital 3D Presentation!
Hard-driving Charlize Theron steals the show from Tom Hardy’s hulking road warrior in director George Miller’s eye-popping fourth entry in the post-apocalyptic action series.
Thursday, December 3 at 9 p.m.

For more info, see here.


3 Replies to “Beyond Badass: Female Action Heroes”

  1. Cue some dumb-ass movie exec, somewhere, saying, in an increasingly confused and whiny voice, “But women can’t be action heroes!”

    No love for ‘Salt’, eh? 🙂

  2. Loved this! Female actors should absolutely have more lead roles written for them in action movies. Unfortunately, it still doesn’t feel like the industry is making much progress.

Leave a Reply