What the New Wave of Female Vigilante Films Says About the #MeToo Movement

Culture


Female Vigilante Films

Focus Feature+Sony Pictures + Dana Starbard

It’s been almost 15 years since a katana-wielding Uma Thurman roared across the big screen as the Bride in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill: Vol. 1, produced by then still-ascendant Harvey Weinstein. What a difference a decade and a half makes: On Thanksgiving Day of 2017, Thurman wished Weinstein a happy holiday on Instagram by remarking that the disgraced mogul “doesn’t deserve a bullet.”

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And so it seems fitting, if coincidental, that at a time when innumerable sexual harassment and assault allegations have tarnished Weinstein’s legacy, female vigilantes are back on the big screen with a literal vengeance.

Last summer, Charlize Theron (nothing but respect for my president Imperator Furiosa) warmed up the genre in David Leitch’s hyperviolent Atomic Blonde. Proud Mary kicked off 2018 in a hail of bullets, with Taraji P. Henson as an underworld assassin who selects her lipstick as carefully as her .45. And this month, Jennifer Lawrence stars in the spy thriller Red Sparrow, in which she plays a prima ballerina forced to be an operative for the Russian government. But not just any 007: Lawrence’s character, Dominika, is trained as a “sparrow,” one of the young, attractive agents rigorously proficient in seduction and information extraction.

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Plenty of female assassins have used the “soft power” of sex as a weapon—there was no going back after the world saw The Avengers’ Emma Peel and her saucy catsuit in the ’60s. But if Red Sparrow sounds like frothy fun on the order of Charlie’s Angels, be warned that it’s pretty harrowing stuff. Dominika is the subject of leers, invasive comments, and touches—from her bosses and targets alike—as well as two attempted assaults. Her training, at the hands of a pitiless grande dame played by Charlotte Rampling, feels like a kind of extended rape scene.

Hollywood has a real opportunity to put some change into effect.

With its extensive nudity and violence, Red Sparrow is the kind of movie that used to be called an “erotic thriller,” shelved alongside over-the-top potboilers like Basic Instinct and Fatal Attraction. But it’s hard to find much to get turned on by, especially in this climate. Sure, Dominika kicks her share of ass, but the humiliations she endures seem less like the stuff of an espionage fantasy and more like a ripped-from-the-headlines reenactment. Director Francis Lawrence deserves some credit for refusing to make those scenes anything less than stomach-turning; the film has no illusions about the sexual violence its heroine encounters.

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In the wake of the #MeToo movement, Hollywood has a real opportunity to put some change into effect, even when it comes to popcorn movies about sexy assassins. Which is why the slated remake of the 1973 blaxploitation classic Cleopatra Jones, green-lighted two months after the Weinstein story broke, feels like it could be a hell of a lot of fun. The original starred the impossibly glamorous Tamara Dobson as a supermodel by day and special agent by night, who jets around the world taking down drug traffickers while wearing impeccable ’70s couture.

Getty ImagesJohn D. Kisch + Separate Cinema Archive

The remake will be helmed by Underground producer and writer Misha Green, and there are plenty of still-relevant themes in the cult classic for her to expand upon (not to mention some serious platform shoes to fill).

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Of course, a few gun-toting female vigilantes aren’t going to solve the problems of the film industry. And it’s hard to escape the fact that the Hollywood action genre is a product of the male-dominated culture that now finds itself under so much scrutiny. But there’s always room for escapist fare that punches up—and there’s an awful lot that the women of Hollywood have to punch up at, whether they work in front of the camera or behind it. While we’re still assessing the irreparable damage that’s been done for decades, I’m more than willing to watch a few righteously angry women roar and rampage their way across the screen.

This article originally appeared in the March 2018 issue of ELLE.

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