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Women bring the action in today’s thrillers

By Joe Williams, St. Louis Post-Dispatch –

For most of the history of Hollywood, the formula for an action movie included a hero, a villain and a damsel in distress. But today there’s a tough new breed of film female who can bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan and vanquish the aliens who try to steal it.

Here are some of the queens of the genre:

The mother of all action heroines is Ellen Ripley, the character played by Sigourney Weaver in Ridley Scott’s 1979 sci-fi classic “Alien.” Ripley was no superwoman — just a capable crew member on a space barge that was invaded by a maternal monster who laid eggs inside humans. Ripley was a survivor, but in James Cameron’s subsequent sequel, she morphed into an avenger, with more overtly violent tendencies, a surrogate daughter to protect and even a sexist catchphrase. (“Get away from her, you bitch!”)

Ripley’s legacy reverberates through Scott’s new film “Prometheus,” a prequel that opens nationwide this week. The cast includes two women with strong connections to the action-heroine motif: Noomi Rapace played Lisbeth Salander in the Swedish version of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” the international hit about a goth hacker who extracts revenge against sadistic sex criminals. And Charlize Theron, who starred in the film of the comic book “Aeon Flux,” plays the action-oriented evil Queen in last weekend’s No. 1 film, “Snow White and the Huntsman.”

Theron’s sword-wielding foe in the latter film is Kristen Stewart. Novice screenwriter Evan Daugherty says Stewart’s role as Snow White owes a debt to the combat-ready females in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, yet the same actress embodied lovelorn passivity in the “Twilight” movies.

The “Twilight” audience seems to have found a fiercer role model in Katniss Everdeen, the reluctant reality-show contestant who kills to feed her family in “The Hunger Games.” The film version has made a superstar out of Jennifer Lawrence and turned archery into a hip sport in which women can compete with men.

Archery is instrumental to “Brave,” an upcoming animated movie about a feisty Scottish princess. It’s the first Pixar film with a female hero, but arrows and swords have been on-screen feminine accessories for years. The seemingly delicate Chinese actress Ziyi Zhang was pointedly lethal in the martial-arts epics “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “House of Flying Daggers.”

In Quentin Tarantino’s two “Kill Bill” movies, Uma Thurman played a betrayed assassin who wields a samurai sword against her former female comrades (including Daryl Hannah, who played an archer in the political satire “Silver City”).

Female assassins became fashionable after the 1990 French film “La Femme Nikita,” which spawned an American version called “Point of No Return” starring Bridget Fonda, and similar spy movies such as “Wanted” and “Salt” (both starring tattooed toughie Angelina Jolie, who first sharpened her game in “Tomb Raider”) and the recent “Haywire” (starring real-life mixed martial artist Gina Carano). It also led to deadly doll television shows such as “Alias” and “Covert Affairs.”

Fonda’s aunt Jane, corseted in a form-fitting vinyl bikini and boots, played an airhead action heroine in the 1968 sci-fi spoof “Barbarella.” Her arsenal included a ray gun, but her real weapon was seduction, a tool employed by wily females in the film-noir era and taken to absurd limits in the “Batman” movies and TV show.

A kin to the kittenish Catwoman (who returns in the person of Anne Hathaway for the upcoming “The Dark Knight Rises”) is Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow in the current hit “The Avengers.” Although she’s a bare-knuckle ninja, her superpower emanates from her pout and posture.

A counter-balance to the sexy superheroine is the feminist ideal of self-sufficiency. The poster women for real-life heroics are Arkansas escapees Thelma and Louise (Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon) in Ridley Scott’s 1991 movie of the same name.

Although the pistol-packin’ mamas get their revenge against abusive men, the road of rebellion is literally a dead end. Perhaps a more hopeful heroine for feminists is the title character played by Sally Field in “Norma Rae,” released the same year as “Alien.” Norma Rae’s “action” is little more than standing on a factory table with a sign that says “Union,” but in her defiance of moneyed male authority, this working-class woman lands a punch.

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