Every week, the Criticwire Survey asks film and TV critics two questions and publishes the results on Monday morning. (The answer to the second, “What is the best film in theaters right now?” can be found at the end of this post.) Send suggestions for future questions to sam at indiewire dot com.
Q: Top billing notwithstanding, critics and audiences agree that the real star of “Mad Max: Fury Road” is not Max but Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa, a grease-smeared trucker with a mechanical arm who fiercely charts her own course. In honor of “Fury Road” — and to further stick it to so-called “men’s rights activists” who can’t bear to see Max Rockatansky taking orders from a woman — who are some of your favorite ass-kicking ladies of cinema?
Tomris Laffly, Movie Mezzanine, Film Journal International
Ellen Ripley. No contest. Strong, sensitive, intelligent, resilient, bad-ass survivor. Who doesn’t want to be her when she appears in that armor/power loader in “Aliens” to save Newt and says: “Get away from her, you bitch!”
Nell Minow, Beliefnet
There is Ripley. And then there is everyone else, including the most bad-ass guys in movie history. Sigourney Weaver beats them all. Runners-up, Zoë Bell in “Grindhouse,” Linda Hamilton in “Terminator 2,” and Gina Carano in “Haywire.”
Scott Renshaw, Salt Lake City Weekly
For the sake of simplification, I’ll leave aside for the moment those women whose badassitude came more from attitude, and focus on those who were primed for a physical fight: Scarlett Johansson in “Lucy,” Gina Carano in “Haywire,” Ziyi Zhang & Michelle Yeoh in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” Carrie-Anne Moss in “The Matrix,” Uma Thurman in “Kill Bill.” But I find it hard to believe that anyone will ever top the first female character I ever remember in a movie as truly badass: Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley from “Alien” and “Aliens.” Let there be no pretenders to that throne.
Chase Whale, Twitch
Sarah Connor, “Terminator 2,” Ripley, “Aliens,” Trinity, The “Matrix” franchise, The Bride, “Kill Bill,” O-Ren Ishii, “Kill Bill,” Cherry Darling, “Planet Terror,” Diana Guzman, “Girlfight,” Lisbeth Salander, The Millennium Trilogy, Fox, “Wanted,” Yu Shu Lien, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” Pam Grier, “Foxy Brown” and “Coffy,” Mallory Kane, “Haywire,” Hit-Girl, “Kick-Ass,” Zoë Bell, as herself in “Death Proof,” and Sandra, played by Marion Cotillard in “Two Days, One Night.”
Max O’Connell, Rapid City Journal, Movie Mezzanine
I’ll assume everyone else is going to say Ripley from the “Alien” series, so I’ll go with Pam Grier in general. Whenever she’s on screen, she’s by far the coolest and most confident person in the room. In “The Big Bird Cage” and “Black Mama, White Mama,” she steals every scene. In “Foxy Brown” and “Coffy,” her mixture of steeliness and impassioned anger elevate disreputably entertaining material into something approaching classic status. She’s great in her recurring role in “Miami Vice,” and in “Jackie Brown” (still one of Tarantino’s two or three best), she makes Samuel L. Jackson, the baddest, most intimidating guy in Tarantino’s previous film, seem like dead meat without ever having to fire a shot. All of this is to say that I’d like to see Pam Grier get another role worthy of her talents, please. Honorable mention: Michelle Pfeiffer in “Batman Returns,” mousy secretary turned femininity’s avenging angel against misogynists.
Alison Nastasi, Flavorwire
I’ve always appreciated the characters that actresses like Pam Grier and Tura Satana played, because they were sexy, dangerous, over-the-top, and empowered. It’s hard to resist Tura’s trash-talking dialogue as Varla in “Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!” Her words are weapons. And what’s not to love about Pam’s resourceful blaxploitation characters? She hid razor blades in her afro in “Coffy,” and in “Foxy Brown” she pulls a gun out of her hair to shoot the baddies. Their characters fought men, as well as women, on the big screen. Pam’s characters often set out to right an injustice. And both women operated by their own rules. Pam and Tura played titillating exploitation fantasy figures, but I’ve always argued that their characters are equally compelling for female audiences as representations of unapologetic, powerful women.
Liz Shannon Miller, Indiewire
A friend of mine once pointed out that in the first “Star Wars,” Princess Leia is the only one who can actually use a damn blaster. Loved her as a child, love her still today. Meanwhile, off-screen, I’ll note that Meryl Streep is pretty damn baller. I don’t think she’s ever raced through the forests of Endor’s moon on a speeder bike, but if you told me that she had it would not surprise me.
Charles Bramesco, Random Nerds, The Dissolve
When it comes to Cherry Darling, the gun-legged hero of Robert Rodriguez’s paean to sleaze “Planet Terror,” it’s best not to ask too many questions. To demand an explanation as to how she can fire her leg-gun seemingly without touching it, or how the gun stays attached to her leg in the first place, entirely misses the point. She’s the sort of action hero who could only ever exist within the confines of the grindhouse’s four walls, all snappy one-liners and killshots between the eyes. Rose McGowan plays Cherry Darling with a carefully measured balance of toughness and vulnerability incongruous to Rodriguez’s transcendent silliness, defiantly insisting that there’s a difference between stripping and go-go dancing, while understanding that clinging to that pathetic distinction is all she really has left in this world. She’s a figure of triumph that rises from the bloodied stump of tragedy, and, again, she has a gun for a leg.
Piers Marchant, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, PopMatters
All apologies to Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley, who absolutely rules in “Alien,” but it’s hard to go against Tarrantino’s Beatrix Kiddo, aka The Bride, played convincingly by Uma Thurman, who singlehandedly takes out the entire order of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad and all of their various henchpeople, while also surviving being buried alive, before unleashing the Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique on her former boss/lover in order to reunite with her young daughter. Ass-kicking doesn’t even begin to cover what she pulls off in the two “Kill Bill” volumes.
Richard Brody, New Yorker
Classic meets modern in the cinema’s kick-ass women. The personae of Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Crawford took decades to crystallize — two actresses who were much greater in middle age than in their youth, largely because they and the directors they worked with turned them more ferocious, expressive, and stylized than ever — whether Stanwyck in “The Furies,” “Escape to Burma,” “Crime of Passion,” and “Forty Guns,” or — above all — Crawford in the film supreme, “Johnny Guitar,” where her confrontations with Mercedes McCambridge and with a bloodthirsty mob — and, for that matter, with Sterling Hayden, whose performance is the height of cool — are among the toughest moments ever filmed. Into the next generation, Anne Bancroft stirs up a tornadic vortex of murderous agony in John Ford’s last film, “7 Women,” which ends with one of the best last shots — and kick-ass shots — in the history of cinema; and her near-exact contemporary, Gena Rowlands, who delivers a worldly-wise kickosophy in John Cassavetes’s “Gloria,” the director’s astonished, admiring vision of his own real-life protector and defender.
Glenn Kenny, RogerEbert.com, Some Came Running
Ann Savage, “Detour,” Rita Hayworth, “The Lady From Shanghai,” Jane Greer, “Out of the Past,” Peggy Cummins, “Gun Crazy.”
Jeff Berg, Las Cruces Bulletin, ABQ Free Press
Zoe/Thana in “Ms .45,” Anna Laurie Starr in “Gun Crazy,” and Vienna in “Johnny Guitar.”
Noah Gittell, Washington City Paper
It’s not my favorite movie, but for a pure shot of feminism, I’ll go with “The Hunger Games'” Katniss Everdeen. Her relationship with Peeta is an incisive subversion of gender roles, with Katniss playing protector to her weak-willed, doe-eyed love interest. Look no further than a scene late in the franchise’s first film. As they split up to search for food, Peeta jokingly suggests that he take her bow and go hunting, before grinning sheepishly and going off to gather fruit. In other words, Katniss is clearly the hunter, while her male counterpart does the gathering. But Peeta can’t even do that right — Katniss finds him on the verge of eating poisonous berries and knocks them out of his hands, protecting the man who harbors a schoolboy crush on her.
Scott Mendelson, Forbes
As a general rule, the so-called “ass-kicking ladies” that I enjoy the most are the ones who exist in a narrative where the fact that they are both women and ass-kickers is taken from granted. So with that in mind, I always appreciated how J.J. Abrams and company never once in “Alias” made an issue out of the fact that Jennifer Garner was a brutally efficient secret agent. And I loved how Anne Hathaway’s particular set of skills as Selina Kyle were never questioned or commented upon during “The Dark Knight Rises.” There are a number I could name offhand, from Michelle Yeoh in “Tomorrow Never Dies” to Uma Thurman in “Kill Bill,” but the ones I appreciate are the ones where we’re not supposed to be surprised or impressed that a girl can be just as tough as a boy.
One thing I will note about Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow is that I think a big reason why she has become so popular is because she is allowed to be genuinely funny. All-too-many female action heroines (or female villains) are basically stone-faced, very very serious characters, as if having them crack a smile would make them less awesome. That Black Widow is allowed to actually crack jokes and be a little obnoxious on occasion is I’d argue what sets her apart from the likes of Katniss and Tris (Hathaway and Pfeiffer also are pretty funny in their respective Catwoman performances, so there’s that too). Also, you lose points for making the only female hero square off against the only female villain, but that’s another conversation.
Cameron Williams, Popcorn Junkie
In the opening scene of Edgar Wright’s adaptation of “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” we’re introduced to the band members of Sex Bob-Bomb: Scott Pilgrim (bass), Stephen Stills (guitar and vocals) and Kim Pine (drums). After a short exchange, Kim (Alison Pill) screams from behind her kit “WE ARE SEX BOB-OMB! ONE-TWO-THREE-FOUR!” And the brand thrashes into the incredible opening song of the film complete with an ace credits sequence. The first impression Kim Pine makes says nothing but ass-kicker, even if she doesn’t do any actual fighting in a film with plenty of combat, she commands everything in front of her drum kit; each war cry pre-song is dynamite. Thanks to Pill’s excellent performance we get brutal candor from the fiercely independent character plus her kick-ass drumming that makes her the heart of the band.
John Keefer, 51 Deep
Ripley and Sarah Connor immediately spring to mind but I think I’ll go for Miss Jean Brodie as my personal favorite kick-ass, fascism-loving, Fagin-like woman of a certain age. “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” was a film I saw when I was maybe a bit too young. It was one of the first I can recall thinking, “This is for adults, there’s not an explosion in sight, and yet I’m totally compelled”. Maggie Smith’s performance can certainly be called compelling without risking hyperbole. You can’t take your eyes off her and if you haven’t seen it, well… see it. Though come to think of it I suppose Pamela Franklin would be the ultimate badass of the movie since she’s the ASSASSIN!!! See the movie so that last sentence makes sense.
Mike McGranaghan, The Aisle Seat, Film Racket
A lot of the best answers are also the most obvious: Imperator Furiosa in “Mad Max: Fury Road,” Ellen Ripley in “Aliens,” Sarah Connor in “Terminator 2,” Katniss Everdeen in “The Hunger Games, etc. But I want to give a special shout-out to Pam Grier in both “Coffy” and “Foxy Brown.” Grier was kicking ass onscreen in the early ’70s — a time when Hollywood basically wasn’t allowing women to do anything of the sort. She was a true groundbreaker in that regard, helping to pave the way for everyone else.
Gary Kramer, Gay City News, Philadelphia Gay News
Michelle Rodriguez in “Girlfight” has always been a favorite Kickass Chick flick for me. She’s tough, and the film was an auspicious debut for Karyn Kusama who has made more than a few actresses in action films. But don’t discount Dreya Weber in “A Marine Story,” who also greatly impressed me. I’d love to see them both buddy up for a battle.
Neil Young, Hollywood Reporter
Helena Kallianotes, the distaff Timothy Carey. I know her mainly for her take-no-prisoners cameo in “Five Easy Pieces,” where in her two scenes she kicks ass — verbally — to such an extent that the picture never quite recovers. However, “Her biggest and most celebrated role came as Raquel Welch’s nemesis in the roller-derby potboiler ‘Kansas City Bomber,’ where she snarled and hissed and cat-fought her way to a Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actress. Her performance even moved Roger Greenspun of The New York Times to rhapsodize about her in tones that wouldn’t have seemed out of place on a mid-Seventies Bowie album… she goes to the dogs with an inappropriate passion rich enough to suggest an over-the-hill Sarah Bernhardt being traded off to the minors by the Comédie Française.” Chuck Stephens, Film Comment.
Peter Keough, Boston Globe
Hit Girl in “Kick-Ass,” obviously. But Asian cinema is well ahead of us in this as scores of films testify. An obscure gem I really liked was Prachya Pinkaew’s “Chocolate,” in which an autistic girl with uncanny martial arts skills takes down the mob to collect the money they owe her sick mother.
Joey Magidson, The Awards Circuit
Maybe I’m just easily amused, but Hit-Girl from the first “Kick-Ass” was so much fun to me that I have to go with her. Chloë Grace Moretz did more than just say dirty words and maim criminals there, leading to what I find to actually be a somewhat iconic little performance. There are bigger and better options for sure, but I couldn’t help but make sure I cited her here.
Jason Osder, director, “Let the Fire Burn”
Easy, my favorite ass-kicking ladies of cinema are Martha Shane and Lana Wilson, co-directors of “After Tiller.” Not what you meant? That’s Ok, still my answer. Honorable mentions: Laura Poitras and Cara Mertes.
Ray Pride, Movie City News
Dame Helen Mirren is unassailable.
Luke Goodsell, Movie Mezzanine
This is a sketchy area, since the notion of “kickass chicks” is so often a function of male filmmaker fetish — no matter how honorable the intention (hello, Tarantino, et. al.) That said, if we’re playing by “ass kicking action” rules, then the answer is easy: Thana, from Abel Ferrara’s “Ms .45.” It helps that the film’s avenging misandrist was played with devastating conviction by Ferrara’s collaborator and star Zoë Tamerlis, who the director called “the ultimate feminist.” Honorable mentions: Moro from “Princess Mononoke,” Pam Grier as Foxy Brown, and Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz” (of course.)
Justine Smith, Sound on Sight
I can’t hide the fact that I have a chip on my shoulder in regards to the interchangeability of “strong” female character and “kick-ass” female character. I think that a woman who literally kicks ass has become something of a shortcut to creating a female icon worth celebrating, ignoring and undermining a cultural history of heroines who did not have to kick ass. I’m all about gender fluidity, and I won’t deny it’s awesome to see a capable woman fighting like hell, all too often these supposed icons of strength are repackaged male roles or serve roles that do very little to advance or enrich the story. Tasha Robinson’s excellent piece, “We’re Losing All Our Strong Female Characters to Trinity Syndrome”, is always my go-to piece about this phenomena. She touches on every point I could ever want to make.
That being said, I’m not above having my own favourite kick-ass ladies… The thrill of watching Gina Carano in “Haywire” is indescribable; you feel her strength, her control and her power. Soderbergh crafted one of the most exciting and sensuous action films of the 21st century and it’s difficult to imagine it succeeding without Carano. I love Sigourney Weaver in every incarnation of “Alien” (yes I even enjoy her basketball moves in “Resurrection”) and Milla Jovovich is fantastic in “Resident Evil.” Linda Hamilton in “Terminator 2” is one of my all time favorite performances, her physicality feels like an obvious extension to her tortured prescience and her role remains one of the great evocations of the Greek myth of Cassandra, the princess gifted with foresight but cursed that no one would ever believe her.
I will be shocked if other critics don’t single out Uma Thurman in “Kill Bill”; it’s a fantastic choice, though the film is rarely discussed within the highly problematic but consistently gratifying rape-revenge genre. What personally is interesting to me is that Tarantino ultimately does away with the “ordinariness” of the female protagonist and opts instead to create this sort of Bruce-Lee hybrid goddess. As a form of exploitation, rape and revenge films exist in a really uncomfortable grey area that people would rather ignore them than admit they can be good or even gratifying. Only Kier-La Janisse with “House of Psychotic Women” has even dared to redeem the seedier peripheries of the sub-genre (she makes a good case as well). Let’s consider that “Kill Bill” is not the only beloved film to draw on tropes of this exploitation offshoot, and just to focus on the ones where women take revenge into their own hands we have iconic films like “The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo,” “Ms .45” and “Lady Snowblood.” Why haven’t films like “I Spit on your Grave” or “A Gun for Jennifer” been re-evaluated with the same enthusiasm as other underground or exploitation films? Or at the very least, why do we seem incapable of engaging in a discussion about these kinds of films without resorting to hyperbole or at least without trying to understand why they may have value.
Dan Fienberg, HitFix
Am I allowed to subvert your question by pointing out that television has probably done a far better job than movies over the years when it comes to kickass chicks? For the purest of proofs, I’d give you “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” as a movie, versus “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” as a TV show. Or I’d give you “Wonder Woman,” which somehow worked [relatively] excellently as a TV show for three seasons, but has been inaccessible as a movie even in our era of non-stop comic-to-movies adaptations. I give you Peggy Lipton in “The Mod Squad” or Dame Diana Rigg in “The Avengers.” I give you Keri Russell’s Elizabeth on “The Americans,” Snoop on “The Wire” and roughly half of the cast of “Game of Thrones.” The movies turn Jennifer Garner into a giggly rom-com star, but TV turned her into Sydney Bristow on “Alias.” Even if I just nod to characters like Ripley or Sarah Connor, who are manifestly badass in the movies, characters like that are the exceptions over 50 years of cinema, but excitingly close to the norm on TV.
Q: What is the best movie in theaters?
A: “Mad Max: Fury Road”
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