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Over the summer, Expendables 2 director Simon West contemplated ditching the dudes for a third installment of the franchise, and turning the “able” into the “belle.” (An idea that quickly became a reality.) It was an apt pun, not so much because he wanted to replace tough men with tough women, but because he really focused on the “belle” aspect – women admired for their beauty and charm. West’s fantasy “Expenda-Belles” would have seven or eight female mercenaries, including Angelina Jolie, Cameron Diaz, Milla Jovovich, Helen Mirren and Jamie Lee Curtis. Terry Crews then added the likes of Kate Beckinsale and Charlize Theron to the list.
His picks aren’t surprising – Hollywood’s entire female action world trumps beauty over real-life brawn. Where the male action world was primarily flooded with proven strength irrelevant of on-screen talent (Schwarzenegger the bodybuilder, or the many martial artists like Norris, Van Damme and Li), the slight women were picked for their beauty and lust factor, clad in leather and other sexy garb while partaking in waif-fu. The former were to rely on muscle and skill with a sense of gritty reality, while the latter only had perfectly choreographed movie magic in a fantasy world.
His picks also have a point – if a female version of The Expendables is crafted as a who’s who of recognizable female action stars, it has to employ the same beauty over brawn mentality. Until Gina Carano, physical prowess was not the motivating factor for fem-action. The stars that are recognizably mainstream are not the most physically capable. This is the upcoming film’s biggest hurdle. Instead of a display of sheer, obvious power, an Avengers of the action world, a female version becomes a spin on Charlie’s Angels – a film about women who excel at defying expectations with some sort of supernatural, inhuman help.
By being true to the who’s who aspect of The Expendables, the production would lose its defining characteristic – sheer, visible supremacy. The original film isn’t just a collection of the era’s heroes; it’s a collection of the men so strong and fierce that we wonder what would happen if they were locked together in the same room. It’s about power pummeling power, with icons mixed in for good measure. At this point in the evolution of female action films, you can’t really have it both ways. The production must choose which essence is most important: strength vs. strength, or self-reverential mainstream fun in hip-clinging leather. The film can either keep the male and female action worlds divided into realms with vastly different requirements, or it can recognize that while a Fem-Expendables can’t be exactly the same, it can be pretty damn close if it stretches the boundaries of big-buzz names.
The first step came this week. Jolie and the ilk weren’t picked to topline producer Adi Shankar’s project – Haywire’s Gina Carano was. He told Variety: “I don’t know how I’m supposed to make a movie that is supposed to be the female version of The Expendables without Gina Carano in it. It would be like making Twix without caramel or Jamba Juice without jamba.” Shankar eschewed the long resume for the physicality.
Now that brawn has been celebrated in the first official casting choice, we must wait and see if Shankar will continue the trend or revert to waif-fu for the ex-MMA fighter’s supporting cast. It would be the easy move, but not the best. There might not be a huge stable of muscle women to choose from like their male counterparts, but there are still a bunch of great possibilities that mix strength and nostalgia, offering the same powerful impact as Sly and his posse. If Shankar’s 1984 Private Defense Contractors really wants a female Expendables, they must include:
As Quentin Tarantino once explained on Charlie Rose, Pam Grier is the first actress to headline action films, a Blaxploitation icon who never had a white counterpart because there were no other women to compare her to. While not the most powerful, she’s one of the most nostalgically recognizable. “The meanest chick in town,” Grier made classics out of Foxy Brown and Coffy, and can give this female remake the legitimate, recognizable history that’s hard to come by for women. She also bridges the gap between the action worlds, having played Steven Seagal’s partner in Above the Law.
When word about this spin-off hit, all thoughts naturally turned to Michelle Rodriguez. Unfortunately, she kiboshed hope earlier this month, claiming that she hasn’t made enough movies to look back at her action career yet (see above). While understandable, her point is irrelevant. With 12 years happily typecast in tough parts, she has one of the best current resumes for the film, along with one of the most believable track records for on-screen aggression.
As a stuntwoman and actress, Zoe Bell is one of the very few younger choices whose physicality and prowess came before her acting career. She’s studied martial arts before Hollywood came knocking, and has been the stunt power behind female action since her gig as Lucy Lawless’ stunt double in Xena. She was the power behind Kill Bill’s Bride, and kicked off her own acting career hanging onto the hood of a Dodge Challenger in Death Proof. Like Carano, she can perform her own stunts and help eradicate those carefully shot moments where the slight actor suddenly looks beefy as they flip and fight across the screen.
There is precisely one actress who boasts the same roster and physical legacy as The Expendables tough guys – Cynthia Rothrock. Though her fame never rose to the likes of fellow male martial artists in Hollywood, she boasts a full package. She holds multiple black belts, is a five-time world karate champion, and is the only action actress to boast a prolific career since the ‘80s. Rothrock became a star in Hong Kong (look below), before moving stateside in the second installment of No Retreat, No Surrender, hoping to become the female version of the many male martial artists who hit it big in Hollywood. Unfortunately, her 50-plus film and television roles have never resulted in the mainstream success of her male counterparts. Her most mainstream contribution: inspiring the Mortal Kombat character Sonya Blade.
Though not a classically trained martial artist, Michelle Yeoh used a ballet background to enter the Hong Kong action film scene and do most of her own stunts in early movies like Yes, Madam, which was also Rothrock’s Hong Kong debut (look above). Unlike her co-star, however, Yeoh was able to transition into Hollywood with her appearance in Tomorrow Never Dies, and of course, the Oscar-winning Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. If there is a reunion to match the likes of Van Damme and Lundgren, it’d be Rothrock and Yeoh.
See also: Maggie Q, Zhang Ziyi
Sarah Conner escapes the asylum from Daniel Rourke on Vimeo.
Linda Hamilton + Sigourney Weaver
Though neither are current physical powerhouses, Linda Hamilton and Sigourney Weaver are the gender-barrier breakers whose work with James Cameron (and Ridley Scott) made them essential elements of the genre. In a perfect, timeless world, both would bulk up like the former did for T2, taking down everything that came in their path… but a mastermind gig or cameo would also do quite nicely. If there are two old-school names that are expected by the mass populace, it’s Hamilton and Weaver.
Considering the fact that some ex-wrestlers and UFC fighters help round out the cast on The Expendables, it stands to reason that a female version should include the same policy. Trish Stratus, Maria Kanellis and Chyna are decent bets that merge physical prowess and recognizability (not to mention an added pull from WWE’s large male following). But if the new film really wanted to embrace classic female toughness, Shankar should also dig out old-school pros like Wendy Richter and Bull Nakano.
That’s the thing – while there may not be the same sizeable history that allows the source film to have their pick of testosterone, there are definite, capable powerhouses that can make a female version of The Expendables just as genuinely kick-ass as the original. There are women out there with solid, tough histories, who do their own stunts, have wild fighting prowess, and realistic impact you can watch without having to fall into pretend land. Sure, there’s magic in seeing slight people kick ass and save the day; if there wasn’t, the geek-turned-hero films never would have dominated the box office. But there’s also magic in seeing a real female ass kicker.
If Hollywood truly wants to make a female Expendables, and allow women to command an action film, it’s time to embrace the strength, not the make-believe.