Hollywood's new female action stars

Actresses such as Scarlett Johansson are fighting their way to becoming the new action stars on the big screen

Zoe Saldana. Neytiri in Avatar (2009, right, with co-star Sam Worthington) and Gamora in Guardians Of The Galaxy (2014). -- PHOTO: SINGTEL
Zoe Saldana. Neytiri in Avatar (2009, right, with co-star Sam Worthington) and Gamora in Guardians Of The Galaxy (2014). -- PHOTO: SINGTEL
Zoe Saldana. Neytiri in Avatar (2009, with co-star Sam Worthington) and Gamora in Guardians Of The Galaxy (2014, above). -- PHOTO: WALT DISNEY PICTURES
Zoe Saldana. Neytiri in Avatar (2009, with co-star Sam Worthington) and Gamora in Guardians Of The Galaxy (2014, above). -- PHOTO: WALT DISNEY PICTURES
Chloe Grace Moretz. She can play the dark (Carrie, 2013, above), strange (Let Me In, 2010) and, well, young (Diary Of A Wimpy Kid, 2010). -- PHOTO: SONY PICTURES
Chloe Grace Moretz. She can play the dark (Carrie, 2013, above), strange (Let Me In, 2010) and, well, young (Diary Of A Wimpy Kid, 2010). -- PHOTO: SONY PICTURES
Chloe Grace Moretz. Hit-Girl in Kick-Ass (2010) and Kick-Ass 2 (2013, above). -- PHOTO: UIP
Chloe Grace Moretz. Hit-Girl in Kick-Ass (2010) and Kick-Ass 2 (2013, above). -- PHOTO: UIP
Jennifer Lawrence. As shape-shifter Mystique (above) in X-Men: First Class (2011) and X-Men: Day Of Future Past (2014), Lawrence is a slippery figure in blue paint. -- PHOTO: TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX
Jennifer Lawrence. As shape-shifter Mystique (above) in X-Men: First Class (2011) and X-Men: Day Of Future Past (2014), Lawrence is a slippery figure in blue paint. -- PHOTO: TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX
Jennifer Lawrence. Katniss Everdeen (above) in The Hunger Games (2012) and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013). -- PHOTO: SINGTEL
Jennifer Lawrence. Katniss Everdeen (above) in The Hunger Games (2012) and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013). -- PHOTO: SINGTEL
Shailene Woodley. The Fault In Our Stars, 2014, above, with co-star Ansel Elgort. -- PHOTO: TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX
Shailene Woodley. The Fault In Our Stars, 2014, above, with co-star Ansel Elgort. -- PHOTO: TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX
Shailene Woodley. Tris Prior in Divergent (2014, above, with co-star Theo James).
Shailene Woodley. Tris Prior in Divergent (2014, above, with co-star Theo James).
Scarlett Johansson plays a woman who can harness her brain's full capacity in Lucy (left).
Scarlett Johansson plays a woman who can harness her brain's full capacity in Lucy (left).PHOTOS: UIP, WALT DISNEY PICTURES, TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX, SONY PICTURES, SINGTEL
Scarlett Johansson plays a woman who can harness her brain's full capacity in Lucy (left).
Scarlett Johansson plays a woman who can harness her brain's full capacity in Lucy (left).PHOTOS: UIP, WALT DISNEY PICTURES, TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX, SONY PICTURES, SINGTEL

Anew squad of female actresses is picking up the action heroine mantle from Sigourney Weaver, Linda Hamilton and Uma Thurman.

They are led by Scarlett Johansson, twice declared Sexiest Woman Alive by Esquire magazine, who is elbowing in on the action with her new film Lucy after outings as Black Widow in 2012's The Avengers and this year's Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

As Lucy, she gets to fire guns, cause some serious hurt and basically leave any man silly enough to go after her looking like a bumbling fool. The film opens in cinemas tomorrow.

As Katniss Everdeen, Jennifer Lawrence has powered The Hunger Games film franchise into a global hit. The first film in 2012 earned US$691 million (S$860 million) while the second instalment Catching Fire (2013) was a scorcher with US$865 million in takings.

There are also Shailene Woodley, who fronts the Divergent series; Chloe Grace Moretz, showing off her potty mouth and action chops in the Kick-Ass films (2010, 2013); and Zoe Saldana, a key ensemble member in Guardians Of the Galaxy (2014) and who has also been firing away in action flicks such as The Losers (2010).

This is the new sexy. The buxomy beauty is not the damsel in distress but the one who gets to kick butts and look cool doing it.

From time to time, strong women have had their moment on the big screen. Weaver was the extra-terrestrial-busting star of the Alien films (1979-1997), Hamilton bulked up as Sarah Connor for the blockbuster Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) and Thurman was a deadly beauty in the Kill Bill films (2003 and 2004).

Traditionally, though, the action arena has been a male preserve. Just take a look at the mucho macho line-up of The Expendables franchise: Sylvester Stallone, Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, Jason Statham, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Chuck Norris, Mel Gibson, Harrison Ford and Wesley Snipes. It is a list of testosterone swagger seen on film from the 1970s right up till today.

The likes of Johansson, Lawrence, Woodley, Saldana and Moretz are correcting the imbalance. At the same time, they are changing the rules by not being pigeon-holed as only action stars the way many of their male counterparts have been.

Johansson's extensive body of work ranges from indie drama Ghost World (2001) to period drama Girl With A Pearl Earring (2003) to romance Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008).

Lawrence's work in the drama Winter's Bone (2010) and comedies American Hustle (2013) was lauded, while her turn in Silver Linings Playbook (2012) earned her an Oscar for Best Actress.

Woodley did drama in The Descendants (2011) and romance in The Fault In Our Stars (2014).

Moretz, only 17, has also stretched herself by doing horror in Carrie (2013) and Let Me In (2010). And dancer-actress Saldana first broke out in the dance film Center Stage (2000).

Meanwhile, with every punch and kick, they are tearing gaping holes in the theory that audiences do not want to watch women in action roles.

bchan@sph.com.sg

Lucy opens in cinemas tomorrow.

Who is your favourite female action star?

E-mail stlife@sph.com.sg


Scarlett Johansson, 29

Movies: In Lucy (2014), Johansson plays a woman who is able to fully make use of her brain's capacity (as opposed to the 10 per cent that is widely believed for the rest of humankind), thanks to a revolutionary drug. She can read the world as though it were a matrix of information, manipulate other people and pull off cool tricks such as appearing on every single screen in a room.

She was the alluring and deadly red-haired Black Widow in Marvel's The Avengers (2012) and Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014). Johansson reportedly said of her role in The Avengers: "I do nothing but fight - all the time."

Lethal weapon: R&B group En Vogue once sang: "Free your mind, and the rest will follow".

Plenty follows indeed for the titular Lucy, probably beyond what the girl group had in mind.

Her womanly wiles beguile and then she unleashes her killer side. Interestingly, in both Lucy and The Avengers, she gets to show off nifty and deadly moves when she gets tied to a chair.

Action power: *****

Staying power: *****

From acclaimed indie drama Lost In Translation (2003) to light-hearted caper Scoop (2006), from intriguing sci-fi Under The Skin (2013) to compelling voice work in Her (2013), Johansson has proven time and again that a pretty face need not be a typecast one.


Shailene Woodley, 22

Movies: Tris Prior in Divergent (2014, with co-star Theo James). The next chapter, Insurgent, is slated for a March 2015 release.

Tris is not exactly an alpha female. Rather than a strong heroine from the get-go, she is more of an underdog who has to work hard at becoming a number of the Dauntless faction which protects society. As she pushes herself and her body to the brink, she begins to realise what she is capable of achieving.

Lethal weapon: Her fighting spirit and refusal to give up makes Tris a tough opponent. Even when she is down, it would be a mistake to count her out.

Action power: ***

Staying power: ****

She can do both TV (The Secret Life Of The American Teenager, 2008-2013) and film (The Descendants, 2011) with aplomb and is also an actress equally believable in a tearjerker (The Fault In Our Stars, 2014, with co-star Ansel Elgort) and as a jawbreaker (Divergent, 2014).


Jennifer Lawrence, 23

Movies: Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games (2012) and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013).

Part 1 of Mockingjay is slated for November this year.

Survival is the name of the game and Katniss has to rely on her wits and skills to outlast the competition in these vicious and rigged events.

As shape-shifter Mystique in X-Men: First Class (2011) and X-Men: Day Of Future Past (2014), Lawrence is a slippery figure in blue paint.

Lethal weapon: Katniss' assured use of the seemingly outdated bow and arrow led to a surge of popularity in archery. It certainly stood out from the run-of-the-mill gun and even had a certain classiness to it.

Her fiery dress sense is an attention-grabber as well and earns her the nickname of "The Girl On Fire". It is also a warning that she is not to be messed with.

Action power: ****

Staying power: *****

Lawrence was nominated for Oscars for her work in the atmospheric indie drama Winter's Bone (2010), romantic comedy Silver Linings Playbook (2012) and comedy-drama American Hustle (2013), winning for Best Actress for Playbook. She has demonstrated immense range and a Midas touch when it comes to picking roles in movies that attract much buzz.


Chloe Grace Moretz, 17

Movies: Hit-Girl in Kick-Ass (2010) and Kick-Ass 2 (2013). Trained to be a vigilante by Big Daddy, Hit-Girl may be young but she is an efficient killing machine.

She can take down opponents twice her size and later works together with Kick-Ass to bring down the bad guys.

Lethal weapon: The element of surprise works in Hit-Girl's favour.

She may look like a little girl but what spews forth from her mouth is definitely adult talk.

And before you can recover, she would have kicked, punched or shot you into submission, or death.

Action power: ****

Staying power: ***1/2

She is in the midst of her teenage years and there is nothing awkward about them.

She can play the dark (Carrie, 2013), strange (Let Me In, 2010) and, well, young (Diary Of A Wimpy Kid, 2010).

But she is not quite out of the teenage woods yet and it remains to be seen if she can continue to enthral moviegoers when she is in her 20s.


Zoe Saldana, 36

Movies: Neytiri in Avatar (2009, with co-star Sam Worthington) and Gamora in Guardians Of The Galaxy (2014). She also played assassin Cataleya in Colombiana (2011) and drug lord's daughter Aisha in The Losers (2010).

She was blue in Avatar and green in Guardians, but regardless of colour and origin, Saldana has often played strong women who are happy to tango with firepower. She was no mere sidekick in Guardians but a key member of the ensemble trying to save the galaxy.

Lethal weapon: In a poster for Colombiana, Saldana is seen in profile holding a pistol to her face. In a poster for The Losers, she sports a gun and a mean attitude. In a poster for Guardians, she is holding a sharp object with its pointy end pointed right at you. She sure lets her weapons do the talking.

Action power: ***

Staying power: ***

She broke out in the dance film Center Stage (2000) but, since then, she seems to be the go-to actress for ethnic or alien action roles. Appearing in hits such as Avatar and Guardians certainly do not hurt but she needs a more definitive role to really stand out.

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