East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

Violent Femmes (not the band)


I was 23 when Luc Besson’s La Femme Nikita hit the screens, and it was wild.
There had been action thrillers before, of course, but none like this – Anne Perillaud was absolutely stunning, and she was a killer.
In the true sense of the word.
La Femme Nikita was tough, dark in an almost neo-noir way, elegantly shot, and it featured a woman that did what usually was done by a guy, in this kind of movies.

Fast forward thirty years, and the kick-ass dame has become a common trope of modern action cinema, to the point it is now almost its own genre – the crime/espionage action thriller with the lone woman fighting her way from the first act to the third. You know, stuff like Atomic Blonde.

Today being Sunday, and this being August, I decided to take one day off. I spent the morning (re)reading the dark, disquieting The Devil in Nanking, by the late lamented Mo Hayder, and in the afternoon, it being too hot for anything else, I started the fan and then went to see what Prime Video had to offer.
I watched three movies. First, I watched Kate Beckinsale kick ass in New York in Jolt, then I watched Sasha Luss kick ass in Paris in Luc Besson’s Anna, and finally I watched Karen Gillan kick ass in Berlin in Gunpowder Milkshake.
Let’s talk about it.

So, there’s this woman.
She doesn’t have a family, she’s highly trained, she’s kicking ass.
There’s a big name actor somewhere in the flick.
We get a few flashbacks, an elaborate gunfight, and equally elaborate brawl. A few stabbings.
Blood, like, lots of it.
Betrayal, a creepy old man pulling the strings (and very much in need of being killed), plot twist, and she’s gone.
That’s the gist of the three movies.

And I am being unfair to Besson’s 2019 movie – compared to the other two, Anna at least provides us with a plot and a set-up that are intriguing if not believable. The fight scenes are still overlong, but with its flashback and flashforward structure, and its Cold War setting filled with double-crosses and false flags, Anna is certainly the most interesting of the three films, and it keeps the watcher’s attention awake. This is an espionage caper, not just a mindless actioneer.
Sasha Luss is beautiful and quite good, and we get Helen Mirren in a key role, and that’s enough for me.

And now don’t get me wrong – I like mindless actioneers, but I also like good movies.

Jolt has an interesting premise – a woman with rage issues that needs an electric device to control her violent explosions – and a fun first act, but then turns into a rather conventional revenge story, with a twist so trite we see it coming with one hour of advance. Stanley Tucci is good but has very little to do. And the final sequel hook does come with Susan Sarandon attached, but it’s really superfluous.
A pity, because Beckinsale is good, and the character could have been developed in a lot of interesting directions, but it was not.

Of the three movies, Gunpowder Milkshake is one that suffers the most because it was the third one I saw, and the sense of deja-vu was almost overwhelming. As a killer for the mob, Karen Gillan is a weak lead, and Lena Headey is not on screen long enough. The set up is silly just as Jolt‘s was, but there it was played in a straight way, while Gunpowder Milkshake tries to be tongue-in-cheek, and falls tragically short. Unless you are the sort that finds brutality funny, this is going to get boring fast.
And it’s a pity, really, because the John Wick-ish premise is not bad, but it’s a little too little, a little too late. One wonders if, played with a straight face, the film could not have been better.

So, three movies, one good, one OK and one not much so, and I came out with a general sense of derspair – I like tough, strong women like the next guy, and I like a good action flick, but I wonder if maybe the “kick-ass chick” trope has become a little too common. At least Besson places the camera in a few different places, but otherwise the action scenes are all the same – with the same sequence of moves, the same choreography.

It would be nice, for a change, to get a female lead that shows her toughness by being resourceful and smart and not just punching people in the face or shooting them or stabbing them.
Punches, gunshots and stabbings are perfectly fine, but I still believe violence should be brief, and painful.

And yet, the trailer is out for a new movie with Mary Elizabeth Winstead.
Tough chick working as a killer. Gets betrayed (the plot seems to follow the classic noir D.O.A. formula), gets her revenge. There’s Woody Harrelson in it.
I will watch it, probably.
But I’d still like to see something new and different, like La Femme Nikita was 30 years ago.

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

4 thoughts on “Violent Femmes (not the band)

  1. I saw La Femme Nikita when it came out. I saw Gunpowder Milkshake last week. I’m not yet tired of seeing badass women punching, shooting and stabbing dudes to death. I’ve seen about a hundred times more movies featuring badass guys doing the same thing so it may be a while before the genre wears itself out for me.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I also saw a lot of badass guys movies, and that got boring, too.
      And while I still like actions movies with kick-ass women, I would really love to see a different take on the “strong woman” thing. That’s all.


      • I am impressed by kick-ass women in stories that are well written, and in movies too, but for me there’s no kick-ass woman like Modesty Blaise, in the comic strips or the novels, and no cheery but tough sidekick like Willie Garvin. Either of them could rack James Bond up and stack him in cans on a supermarket shelf labelled cat food.

        Modesty’s back story is a very good one also.

        The movie with Monica Vitti as Modesty and Terence Stamp — lousy miscasting, the only choice for Willie Garvin would have been Michael Caine in his thirities — as Willie, was for my money abysmal. It didn’t even do justice to Gabriel’s plan for heisting a fortune in diamonds from a ship’s hold in mid-ocean. As I remember, the movie skimmed over that so casually you scarcely even knew how it was carried out.

        Liked by 1 person

        • While I am a huge Monica Vitti fan, I have to agree – she was not a good choice for the character, and the same goes for Stamp.
          The movie had too much of a comedic tone.
          I also saw a pilot for a TV series that went nowhere, that updated the time frame but once again did a very bad service to the character. There should be a review somewhere on this blog.
          And I also thought about Modesty Blaise when I wrote this post, because if Nikita was the first iteration of the trope in a good movie, Modesty was certainly the first iteration of the character in comics and stories.


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