Over the weekend, the women’s science fiction and fantasy blog The Mary Sue caught an exciting bit of movie news for those of us who like watching women shuck off the damsel in distress mantle and kick a little ass of their own. After the success of the ensemble action franchise The Expendables, which pulled together multiple generations of male movie bruisers, the production company 1984 Private Defense Contractors is hoping to replicate the magic, but with an all-female lineup. That would be a wonderful development, both for those of us who are thrilled by the power fantasies that female action roles represent, and for improving the employment prospects for female action stars. But the movie will only make sense if it casts women who specialize in action movies, not those who merely dabble in them.
My cause for concern stems from an interview Simon West, the director of The Expendables 2, did with E! Online, in which he laid out his dream cast for a female iteration of the franchise. “I like the idea of the Expenda-Belles where it’s seven or eight women mercenaries,” he said. “It would be Angelina Jolie, Cameron Diaz, Milla Jovovich, the list goes on. Helen Mirren, Jamie Lee Curtis would be great.”
Now, West is not slated to direct this movie, if it even makes it all the way through the development process. But his fantasy casting is emblematic of Hollywood’s approach to female actresses, concentrating parts among a few top-grossing women, and, when it comes to action, miraculously making the good box-office bets able to throw a devastating punch without them having to acquire any of the unsightly musculature that would make them actual credible threats—or unattractive to male audiences.
Take West’s list: Jovovich is primarily an action star at this point, yes, and Jolie has made a number of action movies, including Mr. and Mrs. Smith and Wanted. But Diaz is a comedian who makes the occasional action picture (likely because of the above), while Mirren seems cast in movies like Shadowboxer and Red for her age, not her distinctive action style. And as much as I like Curtis, she hasn’t been in an action movie since 1999’s Virus, and before that, True Lies. I like all of these actresses a great deal, but most of their strengths lie in other genres.
The whole point of a franchise like The Expendables is to see stars (Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Jet Li) who have spent a lot of time developing expertise and distinctive fight and character styles together in a single picture that explores how those styles match up against each other. I’d pay to see a female variation on the franchise to watch how Gina Carano’s mixed martial arts experience matches up against Michelle Yeoh’s martial arts expertise, or what it’s like to see Sigourney Weaver and Linda Hamilton’s wiry, older-lady toughness work in tandem or opposition. Casting actresses who don’t have fighting skill sets and distinctive approaches seems to ruin the whole point of making the movie.
I’d hate to see a female Expendables end up a data point in the argument against the credibility of female action stars, something that could easily happen if the project focuses on locking down actresses who are broadly famous instead of actresses who can fight. Not all actresses need to be action stars. But this is a case where the ones who are should be first in line for the job.