Back to IndieWire

6 Filmmakers Who Launched Massive Female Action Stars

From Luc Besson to James Cameron, Johnnie To to Patty Jenkins, here are some the directors who helped cinema's best action stars burst on to the scene.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

“Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets”

STX Entertainment

It’s unfortunate that Luc Besson’s latest multi-million dollar action spectacle is called “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets,” because the film is as much about its male hero (the eponymous Valerian, played by Dane DeHaan) as it is about his female partner, Laureline (Cara Delevingne). A long-time passion project of the filmmaker, Besson’s newest feature is based on the French sci-fi comics series “Valérian and Laureline,” written by Pierre Christin and illustrated by Jean-Claude Mézières, a childhood favorite of Besson. Like the series that inspired it, the film follows a pair of “spatio-temporal agents” who are charged with keeping the peace across the universe.

Valerian may get title billing, but both DeHaan and Delevingne’s characters exist on very equal footing. Most of the time, it’s actually Laureline who saves the day when the notoriously hot-headed Valerian goes off the rails and biffs yet another important mission. It’s Delevingne’s latest crack at breaking into the action movie space — say what you will about “Suicide Squad,” but even as the film’s biggest baddie, the actress didn’t get much in the way of exciting action setpieces — and with a visionary like Besson behind her, it just might be the one that launches her into the action stratosphere. It wouldn’t be the first time Besson has done it, and it likely won’t be his last.

Ahead, Besson and five other modern filmmakers who have helped launch the careers of some of Hollywood’s biggest female action stars, and a look ahead to their newest big bets.

Luc Besson

Delevingne is the French filmmaker’s latest starlet to take the reins on a massive action feature (the estimated budget of “Valerian” tops a gobsmacking $180 million), and the film offers up only her second starring role. Paired with her recent turn in “Suicide Squad,” the model-turned-actress seems to be gunning for action super-stardom, an arena in which Besson is still very comfortable.

In the late ’90s he helped launch the action career of Milla Jovovich, thanks to the back-to-back two-fer of “The Fifth Element” and “The Messenger: Joan of Arc,” which set the actress in a pair of demanding (and very different) roles that both hinged on ass-kicking delivery. While reception to the pair was mixed — “Element” was a huge hit that opened Cannes, while “Messenger” underperformed and even garnered her a Razzie nod — the films proved that she had the skill and drive to excel in action-centric filmmaking. In 2002, she was picked to topline the massive (and somehow still ongoing) “Resident Evil” franchise under the direction of Paul W.S. Anderson. Bolstered by her appearance in six of the films, Jovovich’s total box office take exceeds half a billion dollars. Bankable and brutal.

Fifth Element (1997)Milla Jovovich and Bruce Willis CR: Columbia Pictures

“The Fifth Element”

Columbia Pictures

Recently, Besson turned his attention to Scarlett Johansson for his huge 2014 hit “Lucy,” which pulled in over $450 million globally, the filmmaker’s biggest box office showing ever. Johansson was no stranger to blockbuster filmmaking which she signed on to topline the film, having already starred in three “Avengers” movies and Michael Bay’s “The Island” alongside Ewan McGregor, but it was her first solo action outing. The pair are already planning a followup to the feature.

Ridley Scott

The returns may be diminishing on the “Alien” franchise, but Scott’s continued dedication to placing powerful actresses at the forefront of his scary space films is still its most exciting element. Starting with his 1979 sci-fi masterpiece “Alien,” Scott has consistently made it clear that his franchise is a female-driven one, even when the odds were stacked against him. Scott’s choice to ultimately center his film around the strength of a female character was hardly the kind of thing that other late-’70s action-driven blockbusters dug into (screenwriter Dan O’Bannon first wrote Ripley as a male lead, and Scott was the one who hit upon the idea to change the character’s gender), but it paid off mightily, and Sigourney Weaver’s turn as Ellen Ripley isn’t just her most famous role, it’s arguably the most famous female action star role ever.

Weaver, of course, returned for three more “Alien” followups, including “Resurrection,” where she was joined by Winona Ryder in another compelling female role. Though Ryder’s work in the film didn’t catapult her into action stardom, Scott hasn’t let up from letting ladies lead his series. In “Prometheus,” Noomi Rapace starred as the ill-fated Elizabeth Shaw, a major English-language crossover role for the “Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” star and one that helped unlock plenty more doors in Hollywood. She’ll next be seen in “What Happened to Monday?,” an action outing that imagines the actress as no less than seven thrill-seeking sisters.

ripley alien

“Alien”

Recently, Katherine Waterston took over lead duties in “Alien: Covenant,” likely kickstarting her own franchise (Scott has repeatedly made it clear that he intends to continue the series). The rising star has another big franchise under her belt — the Harry Potter spinoff “Fantastic Beasts” — but her work in Scott’s film seems designed to elevate her to the level of the Weavers of the world.

And don’t forget that Scott also directed Demi Moore in her most ambitious action outing ever, the mostly forgotten “G.I. Jane,” which temporarily touted the actress as the next big action super-star to watch. That didn’t exactly pan out, and Moore’s next even remotely action-centric role was in “Charlie’s Angels,” but that doesn’t diminish the raw physical power she put into the role, as aided by Scott.

This article continues on the next page.

This Article is related to: Film and tagged , , ,