Milla vs The World

In the latest Resident Evil film, Afterlife, the franchise’s deadly heroine—known simply as Alice—appears as a small army of cloned warriors, each as gifted as the original. But during the opening action scene, they’re nearly all killed off. Bam! Okay, so it was a loopy idea to begin with, but come on, multiple kick-ass Alices—if you’re going to go there, at least follow through on that promise.

From there on it’s a standard sci-fi-zombie-action-horror, albeit with the welcome return of Claire, fellow zombie-killer from the previous installment, and the star of Prison Break, Wentworth Miller, who clearly hasn’t learned much from that gig (he’s captured and locked up twice in this film). These films are relentlessly silly, violent, cheesy, derivative, and downright fun. And most of the fun, for me at least, is in watching perhaps the only bona-fide working franchise action heroine strut her stuff.

Her name is Milla. Milla Jovovich. And she’s really something.

After making her name as an astoundingly successful fashion/glamour (super)model, Milla (pronounced Mee-la) blazed onto the big screen in 1997 as Leeloo, the sweet, vulnerable superbeing in Luc Besson’s eccentric SF tale, The Fifth Element. She had some nice action moments, and looked amazing in all manner of weird fashions in what was ultimately a curio of a film rather than the global SF blockbuster Hollywood wanted it to be. Her athleticism and striking looks, though, together with a solid performance gave us a memorable action heroine in a genre that sadly doesn’t have many.

After trying her hand at more serious, dramatic roles—Joan of Arc being her best—she was cast in her soon-to-be-signature lead role of Alice in Paul W.S. Anderson’s adaptation of the immensely popular SF horror video game, Resident Evil. A solid hit, it played to Milla’s strengths—fidgety vulnerability, athletic fight scenes, potent sexuality—and proved that an action heroine could indeed headline a genre movie and needn’t, as Hollywood wisdom saw it, drive audiences away. The Resident Evil brand recognition may have been what attracted moviegoers in the first place, but Milla has since ruled as queen of the franchise for a further three installments*, the latest, in 3D, grossing almost $300 million worldwide.

*A fifth movie, Retribution, is in production and is scheduled for release this September :grins:

She’s now a bona-fide action heroine. And apart from perhaps Kate Beckinsale (the Underworld series), she’s the only one consistently returning to this kind of role and being successful with it.

Resident Evil has to be one of the most unique franchises in Hollywood in that its heroines overshadow its heroes time and time again. In the first, Michelle Rodriguez (an excellent action star in her own right, who unfortunately never gets leading roles) made a big impression. In the sequel, Apocalypse, Sienna Guillory was a strong, ultra-sexy Jill Valentine. And in the next two, Extinction and Afterlife, Ali Larter kicked ass as Claire Redfield. Male pretenders come and go in the series, and these women keep saving the day.

I find it ridiculous in 2012 that this is the exception to the rule in action films. Angelina Jolie’s Salt is one of the few recent kick-ass genre movies to headline a female action star, and was, interestingly enough, slated to star Tom Cruise at one point. If her kind of clout can reshape projects to become heroine-centric, why aren’t other big-name actresses seeking out that kind of empowering role? They’ll have to be the ones to do it—hiring writing/directing talent worthy of them—because Hollywood still doesn’t think women are viable action stars. Trinity in The Matrix, Catwoman in Batman Returns, Black Widow in The Avengers: these are all popular and well-written roles, but they don’t headline their respective films. And is that any wonder when standalone stinkers like Halle Berry’s Catwoman and Jennifer Garner’s Elektra failed on every conceivable level?

Is James Cameron the only Hollywood power player who understands the potential of strong women in action roles?

Geena Davis tried in the past to make it happen, but while A Long Kiss Goodnight hit home, Cutthroat Island hit bottom. Even the mighty Angelina struggled to convert her two Lara Croft projects, seen as sure-fire bets before the fact. She was perfectly cast as Lara, but the movies never struck that archaeology-as-supernatural-mystery-adventure gold that people loved about Indiana Jones. They were bland, flashy, forgettable. I’d love to see an actress like Emily Blunt pick up that role, and a grade-A director to guide her. With such a massive brand as Tomb Raider, it’s got re-boot written all over it. Ease up on the character’s famous curves, make her an intelligent action heroine boys and girls, men and women can root for. Is it that hard?

Zoe Saldana (Avatar, Colombiana) and Gina Carano (Haywire) have recently tried, to moderate results, to break through as genuine action stars. I’m curious to see if they can take it to the next level. But my guess is we won’t see it happen until those with the clout stop looking down on action heroines as nothing more than a juvenile, male-fantasy-derived, sideshow attraction.

Because seriously, they kick ass for us all.

Just ask Milla.

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6 comments

  1. “Resident Evil has to be one of the most unique franchises in Hollywood in that its heroines overshadow its heroes time and time again.”
    I have to agree wholeheartedly with this and you made a great case regarding the other films, including the Lara Croft movies which I did enjoy (but they were lacking a certain action “punch”).
    I also agree that James Cameron has managed to create some awesome, strong action heroines but none that return to the same kind of level in an ongoing series.
    For me, I’d rank them Alice first, Sigourney Weaver as Ripley next, then Beckinsale in Underworld (I haven’t bothered watching the 3rd in that series. I have a feeling I’d be disappointed).
    Great post!

  2. Thanks Ella! I’m glad you mentioned Ripley–even without her character, that whole franchise universe is still very much heroine-centric. Noomi Rapace and Charlize Theron seem to be the stars of Prometheus, which is a kinda-sorta-maybe prequel to Alien? Not sure if it counts as an action film, though, and I can’t wait to find out.

    Ooh, I thought of another Charlize SF action film that I kinda liked (but that almost everyone else hated)–Aeon Flux. Have you seen it?

  3. I’m embarrassed to say I haven’t seen any of the Resident Evil franchise. I’ll take care of that shortly. I dunno why I haven’t, because I adore Milla.

    My opinion, for what it’s worth, is that many (not just with female stars) action movies suffer from poor writing. Too much focus on explosions and CGI, not enough on stellar plot, character development and dialogue.

    1. No arguments here, Diane. The writing does seem to be the last consideration in action films. The high concept trumps everything. To be honest, Resident Evil is no different–but the women are amazing.

  4. I can’t bring myself to watch any Resident Evil film, sorry. It’s just this thing I have about zombies…can’t do it. But your post really made me think, as usual. It is surprising that there aren’t more pivotal roles for women in Sci-fi or horror for that matter. I think that will change though. These genres are no longer watched by such a heavy percentage of men – more women openly admit to being fans. So I think we will see more women with starring roles from that.

    1. They’re definitely not for everyone, Lilly. Even I’d describe them as guilty pleasures. But feminist film historians of the future are going to look back at Milla and find her a fascinating example of this type of action heroine. In some ways she’s cut straight out of a comic book, but there’s more to her than meets the eye.

      I’ve noticed quite a few tough heroines emerging in genre TV series, which is encouraging. Anna Torv in Fringe is my favourite at the moment–she can do anything.

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