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Girls Who Should Have Had Guns...
I have lost count of the number of movies in which I've been disappointed by the female characters. Often they seemed to be added as an afterthought, a "love interest" for the hero, or just as eye candy. In particular, there is a shortage of them in action movies: it's strange that, so often, an all powerful crime boss is expected to live the life of a monk. But even when all the elements are put in place, there are many that then proceed to mess up the climax. At the other end of the scale, are films where the characters are completely wrong for the situation in which they are placed.
To illustrate these points, I have taken a closer look at four films, and come up with alternative scenes, characters or sequences which might have been an improvement. Although as they were made, they were all a personal disappointment to me, I should say that I have seen worse, and selected them to make a point, rather than to put them down. At least they tried...
Wild Wild West (1999)
Don't just stand there, do something!
Before getting on to the actions - or rather, the lack - of the female lead in this movie, I feel it only fair to say, she was not the main problem. That dubious honour goes to a plot, which was so lame that if it had been a horse, it would have been shot. And while they were in the process of rewriting the script, particular attention could then have been paid to the part played by Selma Hayek. Because, to me it's ridiculous to have a female lead in an action movie, whose only purpose seems to be standing around and looking decorative. She should be a participant in the action, not a spectator, but at no time in this endeavour did she fire a gun, ride a horse or fight anybody. She was there solely for the two male leads to argue over, and show off her underwear...OK, not totally a bad thing, but there were some bad girls too, equally underemployed. With only a little imagination, a revised version could have a scene something like this:
Our intrepid trio are riding along on horseback and get ambushed. They dive for cover as the bullets start flying. The men return fire and exchange words to the effect that since there are four attackers, they are outnumbered two to one. They are interrupted by the crash of a gun firing just behind them, and a cry of pain, as a bad guy bite the dust. They turn to see Selma holding a rifle, and she says calmly, "I don't why you're complaining about the odds. By my count, it's three against three."
Simple but effective. Instead, this movie demonstrates what happens when the producers concentrate more on special effects than they do on telling a story. This can only result in characters that are not used to their full potential.
Austin Powers: Goldmember (2002)
Where's the bad girl?
The original was fine, but by the third, I was getting tired of the recycled jokes. The one thing I did like, however, was the inclusion of Beyonce as Austin's partner, Foxxy Cleopatra, and I would like to have seen more of her and less of Mike Myers [I admire the man's talent, but the novelty of playing both hero and villain does wear off eventually]. On a more specific note, I found Dr Evil was starting to get really irritating, and the inclusion of a bad girl might have helped, giving somebody else to bounce jokes off. And there was no shortage of suitable candidates: when the audience was first introduced to Goldmember, beautiful girls surrounded him, and I have never understood why he didn't take one of them with him.
She should, of course, be an active participant in the action sequences. This would be more important than great acting talent, as the entire series involves overacting and hamming it up, rather than trying for an Oscar. It'd give scope for things such as her and Foxxy having a running-gag, in which they compete as to who can hide the biggest gun in the sexiest outfit. [See Undercover Brother for an example of what can be done] An increase in Beyonce's part is certainly something that many would welcome: she has real potential as an action heroine and I hope, someday, gets a part that gives her a better chance to show her talents. I don't really care if she plays the good girl or bad girl - just so long as there is one of each...
If they're going to fight, get it right.
I rather enjoyed this movie. It is a lighthearted, testosterone-fuelled, action flick that has no pretensions about being anything else, is full of stunts and, apart from the ending, delivered everything it promised. Early on in the film, there is a confrontation between Shane (Monet Mazur) and China (Jaime Pressly). It's apparent that they are ordained enemies and their mutual hatred is personal, going far beyond them being the respective girlfriends of the hero and chief villain. It's made clear to the audience that by the end of the movie, there will be a reckoning between them. This is definitely something to look forward to, as they are beautiful and physically well matched.
And so it comes to pass. At the end of the movie, the villains get busted; China makes a break for it, jumps on a motorcycle and rides off. Shane also mounts up and goes after her. So far, so good, but this is when it starts to get goofy. For some strange reason, they try to have a martial arts fight from the back of their bikes. Unfortunately this just doesn't work on any level, and I would have liked it done a lot differently.
First of all, they both would have grabbed guns before riding off - this makes more sense. They would have started firing at each other while riding, perhaps ending when Shane shoots out the bad girl's back tire. Abandoning her bike, China is now able to aim more effectively and nearly takes out her pursuer. Sliding to a stop, the good girl ducks for cover, and resumes what is now a running gun battle. Shane chases her rival down and traps her. With nowhere to run, China prepares to make her last stand, when something almost unheard of in action movies happens: her gun runs out of ammo.
Shane advances from behind cover, her own gun aimed at her rival, smiling happily as she says, "Give it up, bitch. It's over now, and I don't want to have to shoot you." China sneers at her foe, drops to a fighting crouch and clenches her fists as she replies. "Well, in that case put the gun down and try and take me without it, if you have the guts." This suits our good girl just fine. She has no desire to shoot an unarmed foe, but likes the idea of beating her up...
The two actresses concerned did some of the film fight themselves, and would likely have welcomed the chance to do more. They had some martial arts training for their roles so a reasonable skill level could be expected. Ideally it would not be a classic martial arts fight, but an all-out, back alley brawl. Mazur and Jamie should have been given the opportunity to put on a great fight, getting back to basics.
A quick side-note. Too often, film-makers forget that the human face is the most expressive part of us. A display of emotion can be used to draw the audience into the fight, and make a commitment into caring who wins. This is especially so when a girl is fighting as a hero: you feel her pain as her enemy lands a blow, will her on as she strains for dominance, and enjoy with her the fierce pleasure of victory. This is something difficult to do when using stuntwomen, for obvious reasons: I have a lot of admiration for them, but feel in many cases they should stay in the background, helping with the fight chorography.
Sorry, Homer - they lost the plot.
The inclusion of this particular movie will surprise many, but think along the lines of, "girls who should have been armed and dangerous", and I will explain. The movie's publicity proudly claims that it is "inspired by Homer's Iliad" - rather than based on - and the differences are too numerous to list here. So I'll concentrate on those affecting my own topic.
Three of the strongest characters in the Iliad are female. It is the goddesses Hera, Athena and Aphrodite who set the whole thing off, by arguing and then fighting over, a present addressed to "the most beautiful goddess" of them all. Zeus, all-powerful King of the Gods intervenes but is not prepared to pick a winner. The reason why is quite simple: he's not stupid. He knows that the two he doesn't pick, will resent it and even the most powerful being on the planet has no desire to face the fury of two such formidable females.
In a manoeuvre worthy of a politician, he delegates the decision to somebody else. Paris gets the job and all three try to bribe him. He chooses Aphrodite, who offers him any woman he wants, over the other two who only offer him power over men. He wants Helen, so she organises it - and from then on the mortals are part of a giant war game as the gods and goddesses interfere with what is happening on Earth.
[This is of course a very brief summary and will probably offend any scholar reading it! But it won't matter to the filmmakers, since they eliminated the whole thing and started with the humans having free will. Hence, when things go wrong, it can no longer be blamed on "the will of the gods." With all the powerful female characters eliminated, the ones left should step up to fill the void. The game is still on, but they are no longer pawns - they are queens, and should act accordingly. Not doing so, results in what I consider to be an absurd situation. Helen puts her own personal happiness over that of the fate of nations, but is not portrayed as being arrogant. You gotta be kidding - as Homer probably wouldn't have said.
Then there is also Andromache, wife of Prince Hector to consider. She has a wonderful life until Helen arrives at Troy. Her husband will be the next King of Troy, she will be its Queen, and they have a baby they both love. But because of Helen, her husband is killed, Troy is destroyed and she and baby are forced to flee in fear of their lives. Despite this, not once in the whole movie does she get the least bit annoyed with the person responsible. I just don't see how any woman destined to rule could be that much of a wimp. I think their first meeting should have been a moment of high dramatic tension - something which in the movie is sadly lacking.
At the welcome home reception, eyes meet across a crowded room, and it's hate at first sight. Helen is being shunned by the women of Troy and knows she must deal with their leader. Unlike the others, Andromache does not turn from her gaze, but stares back defiantly. Slowly, menacingly. Helen moves towards the Trojan Princess. Hands on hips and eyes locked with those of her approaching nemesis, Andromache stands her ground - if the Spartan Queen is looking for a fight, she won't need a map. It is Helen who speaks first. "How dare you treat me like this, Housewife of Hector. I demand the respect that I deserve." "That is exactly what you are getting, Helen of Whores. You are not welcome here," replies Andromache.
The Queen of Troy intervenes, reminding them that royalty does not brawl in public. They are both members of the same sisterhood and should take their dispute to the temple of their order. The girls agree and that night after suitable ritual and ceremony they duel with daggers, bare to the waist, until blood is spilt. After a spirited struggle between the two well-matched rivals, Helen overpowers her foe but chooses to deliver a small cut rather than a death thrust. The two fighters now have a mutual respect for each other and at the end of the movie, arm themselves with swords, and fight their way, back to back, out of the doomed city.
Okay, while this might be truer to the spirit of the original, I am prepared to concede that this version might be a little extreme for many, and that a compromise scenario would be needed for a mainstream audience. However, I'm sure that Diane Kruger and Saffron Burrows, the two actresses involved, would certainly have preferred some meaty dialogue. I found no indication from their body language that that they like each other, and may have welcomed the chance to get physical.
In addition, I also found their big scene together, after Hector is killed, most unrealistic. This is when Helen (Kruger) tries to comfort a sobbing Andromache (Burrows), although the logical person to comfort her is the Queen, who has just lost her son. I think most women in that situation would be more interested in clobbering the person responsible with a sword rather than getting a hug from them. There was a coldness about the embrace that suggested to me that they knew it was all wrong - and perhaps they would rather have fought.
On a more positive note I have seen many action movies in which a male/female partnership has worked well. This is especially true, if there is a chemistry between them, such as the combination of Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner back in the 1980's. Romancing the Stone and Jewel of the Nile have a special, timeless quality about them, that also applies to my favourite movie of this genre, True Lies. While action packed from start to finish, it has enough humour in it to lighten the mayhem, so that it isn't taken too seriously. Although it starred Arnold Schwarzenegger, I put a lot of its success down to having Jamie Lee Curtis (good girl) and Tia Carrera (bad girl), as his two leading ladies - not that there was anything very ladylike about the way they fought over a gun in the back of the limo!
Nor am I trying to suggest that this sort of movie is a thing of the past. I enjoyed the recent Van Helsing, and thought that Hugh Jackman and Kate Beckinsale worked well together. In the near future I intend to see National Treasure with Nicholas Cage and Diane Kruger in the starring roles. So far I have only seen the trailer, but I have already seen her involved in more action than the whole of Troy. And that, ladies and gentlemen, pretty much brings me full circle, right back to missed opportunities.
[Brian S, November 2004]
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