The other day, my husband and I caught a trailer for The Expendables, which is the cinematic result of a mad scientist’s attempt to mix the mitochondrial DNA of every American action star from the 1980’s into a sweaty, tattooed, bulging-veined chimera. We first saw this trailer during Kick-Ass, and my comment at the time (aside from my ceaseless laughter, which I think unnerved a few of my fellow theatre-goers) was: “Wow! It’s like the ’80’s mated!” As usual, my husband had a more measured reaction: “No action movie can claim to be complete unless it has Sygourney Weaver.”
Which got me wondering: if someone made a movie like The Expendables with a cast of female action stars, what would it look like?
The Expendables has seven action stars playing the heroes, the usual ragtag team of paramilitary ubers, with two boss characters played by Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger, and four name-checked bad guys, most of them from the pro-wrestling world. So that’s a total of fourteen top-billed (or at least trailer-worthy) characters. Could I find fourteen utterly awesome women to fight their way through my XX-powered action film?
I started with the bosses first. I wanted two women who couldn’t just kill you, but could have you killed, with a simple nod. They are: Helen Mirren and Pam Grier. I see Helen Mirren playing the Bruce Willis role, here: the woman who hires The Necessaries to do a really tough job in a war-torn country. She’s icy, she’s efficient, and most importantly, she’s probably the only person in the world who could tell Angela Bassett what to do. (More on that in a second.) Pam Grier could play Schwarzenegger’s part as the former leader of The Necessaries, who got fed up with the incremental gains made by the group in similarly awful exotic locales, and left the group for a sweet slice of the consultant pie with a military contractor. Now she’s a desk-jockey, secretly yearning for the sense of thrill and accomplishment that her old job gave her.
This was tough. Basically, I had to choose between Sygourney Weaver and Angela Bassett. And who better to take up the mantle of leadership than Ellen Ripley? After all, isn’t every Alien movie about how we all would have been so much better off if we had just listened to Ripley? Well, yes. But if we had all just listened to Ripley, there would be no story. Picture this:
Random Redshirt: “What is this?”
Ellen Ripley: “It’s a queen. She’ll breed. You’ll die.”
Random Redshirt: “No way, really? Well, shit, I guess we’d better get on that! Thanks for telling us, Ripley! We’re so lucky you’re around to help us through this little jam!”
See? No story there. Every Alien movie, and most Sygourney Weaver films, are all about how Weaver is the calm voice of reason who can still kick your ass when you ask for it. The central conflict in most of her films sprouts from her frustrated attempts to be listened to. No, really. Think about it. I’m not just talking about the Alien movies, here. It’s in Ghostbusters, Avatar, Gorillas in the Mist. She keeps trying to punch through, but it just doesn’t happen until the very end, when there’s a cathartic “She told you so, jackass,” moment. (One notable exception to this rule is Working Girl. It reverses the pattern somewhat, in that everyone listens to her until she’s proven to be a fraud.)
My point is that I’d listen to the wisdom of my elders on this one. I’d cast Angela Bassett as the leader character, with Sygourney Weaver as her best friend and lieutenant. Once again, Weaver would be playing the voice of reason, challenging Bassett’s self-destructive decisions to lead the team into danger but ultimately supporting her either way.
This is where things got really fun. With four castmembers spoken for, I had ten slots left. I thought that this was the place for younger stars to really shine. I tried to find women with actual martial arts or weapons experience, who wouldn’t just look stiff and pouty in costume. We’ve all seen female supers in major Hollywood films by now, but a lot of the time I feel like the action is lacking. I mean, I want my action stars to be pure forces of nature, who aren’t afraid to do truly awful things to other human beings. I’m the person who laughed gleefully when a young Rorschach bit the ear off a bully in Watchmen. Once you see that moment, everything else his character does as an adult rings true. But Malin Ackerman just couldn’t convince me that she’d really been trained from birth to fight as the second Silk Spectre. In the case of The Expendables a lot of the castmembers are athletes, some of whom come from pro-wrestling or MMA. I felt like the women I cast would have to bring a similar level of realism to The Necessaries. Here are some names I had in mind. If you see names crossed off, it’s because these women are less inclined to do their own stunts.
- Michelle Yeoh
- Summer Glau
- JeeJa Yinan
- Linda Hamilton
- Yvonne Strahovski
- Milla Jovovich
- Uma Thurman
- Jodie Foster
- Katee Sackhoff
- Jennifer Garner
- Yoon Eun Hye
- Chloe Moretz
- Sarah Michelle Gellar
- Maggie Q
- Chiaki Kuriyama
- Jeon Ji-hyeon
- Rosario Dawson
- Angelina Jolie
- Zoe Saldana
- Charlize Theron
- Michelle Rodriguez
That’s sixteen names. Some of them are obvious reaches, like Yoon Eun Hye. She’s the star of Coffee Prince, a K-dorama in which she repeatedly lifts grown men and carries them on her back. She also boxes in The Story of Seven-Cutter, but she’s never played an action heroine before. So I feel safe cutting her out. I also wonder whether Linda Hamilton wouldn’t fit better in a cameo role; she hasn’t begun her stint on Chuck yet, so I’m not sure if she’s back in the action saddle. I’m also a little worried about Jeon Ji-Hyeon, the star of the live action adaptation of Blood: The Last Vampire. I did some reading and found out that she did her own wire-work, but I remained a bit ambivalent.
Looking at these names, I started getting pretty excited. I knew how I would feel if I saw all of them arrayed on a poster. The poster for The Expendables is full of bankable stars who have all headlined their own movies. And while I couldn’t necessarily do the same with The Necessaries, I could situate top-billed actors alongside actors who have always played more “token” roles, whether it’s the token woman, the token minority, the token bad-ass, or some combination thereof. For once, these women wouldn’t have to be the exception. They could work with their peers.
Seeing this list, my husband immediately told me that I should cut Angelina Jolie. “I’ve never liked her,” he said. I replied that I had liked her in some films (mostly Girl, Interrupted), but that I worried that casting her would mean that the entire film had to be about her. It was hard for me to imagine Jolie in an ensemble role. I found myself wanting to shrink her appearance down to the shortest possible amount of screen-time. But on the other hand, she’s a hugely profitable action star who does her own stunts. Not including her would be like not including Jet Li in The Expendables. “It would be total hypocrisy on my part not to cast her,” I told my husband.
Looking at my prospective cast, I worried about taking the obvious action movie route: cast the Asian minorities as the “bad guys,” and have a bunch of English-speaking “good guys” beat them up. An easy way to do this would be to send The Necessaries into China or North Korea on a Laura Ling-style rescue mission. Michelle Yeoh could run a prison camp where Chloe Moretz is held, with Jeon Ji-Hyeon, JeeJa Yinan and Chiaki Kuriyama playing her wardens and guards. (There’s another obvious problem, here: Yeoh is Chinese, Jeon is Korean, Yinan is Thai, and Kuriyama is Japanese. The only reason for them to play women born in the same country is because the casting director assumes that “Asian” is one identity.) There would be a lot of trial and tribulation as The Necessaries slipped beyond the border and into the camp, culminating in a knock-down drag-out final battle. There would be a lot of crazy bullet camera and wire-fu and snippets of Joan Jett and Courtney Love songs as Bassett and Weaver led Glau and Saldana, et al. into a firestorm of liberation, disproving the Communist agenda with sexy smirks and good old-fashioned American punching.
But I’m not M. Night Shyamalan, so I couldn’t go that way.
Another way to arrange these stars in a story is to keep the idea of two opposing teams, but to divide them along another binary: age. Bassett and Weaver would still lead a team, but it would be comprised of Uma Thurman, Charlize Theron, Michelle Yeoh, and Milla Jovovich. On the opposing side, Angelina Jolie would lead a team of Summer Glau, Rosario Dawson, Michelle Rodriguez, Chiaki Kuriyama, JeeJa Yinan, and Chloe Moretz. Each team could be on the hunt for the same MacGuffin, or one team could be guarding a MacGuffin while the other attempts to steal it, or the older team could even be training the younger team in paramilitary drills when the situation goes horribly wrong.
I actually liked that last scenario best. It doesn’t shout “BIG DUMB ACTION MOVIE” as loudly as the first scenario, but I think there’s a lot of potential for good set pieces and high drama there. It’s still a fairly classic plot: when one teammate winds up dead during a training exercise, the team has to decide whether it’s all part of the game or whether they’ve been betrayed. Add to this the natural tensions between the two teams, and you have an explosive situation. I think there’s still plenty of room for great fights and kills in a story like this, ideally set against the backdrop of an abandoned city, deep jungle, or other desolate place. Maybe these women are all military contractors, training before they hit the ground in Kandahar where their job will be to cultivate contacts among Afghan women. (Has someone tried this, as part of the counter-insurgency plan? If not, why not?) Maybe there’s tension between Bassett and Weaver’s visions for the team: one wants to expand it so they can do more good, and the other thinks they work best as a small, nimble unit. My point being, there are a lot of stories to tell here.
The Box Office
Would anyone besides me (and DeathRay) want to watch The Necessaries? I don’t know. I’d like to think that they would. The concept is just simple enough to attract attention, and the flavour is different enough to tempt traditional action fans. The charm of The Expendables isn’t just the action, it’s seeing all the action stars doing what they do best together. It’s a cumulative effect. And I think people would be willing to shell out to watch a similar film starring female action stars. Every woman on my list has proven herself in the action realm, and I think it would be really fun and entertaining to watch them all kicking ass together. I personally would love to watch Uma Thurman fight Michelle Yeoh. I think that would be an awesome match. I wouldn’t even care who won, so long as I got to see it. Ditto JeeJa Yinan and Chloe Moretz. They’re both such prodigies, both so committed to learning their craft and doing their own fights in their films, that I think any scene between them would be awesome. I realize that on a very basic level this is akin to taking action figures and smashing them against each other while making “ki-ya!” noises, but sometimes that’s what you watch movies for. Eventually, while dreamcasting, I lost count of all the women I wanted to include, and stopped mapping my list against that of The Expendables. After all, the point isn’t to improve upon The Expendables, or even to match it perfectly, it’s just to see whether I could do a similar film with women. And I feel like I answered that question in the affirmative. There are a lot of women out there kicking ass and making their names. They deserve their own place to shine, but that’s not why a movie like The Necessaries should be made. It should be made because it would rock.
Although I’ve been playing director in my mind, I listed Kathryn Bigelow as the director on my poster. This is partly to preserve the all-female aspect of the idea and partly because she’s done so much action direction in the past. She seems like a natural fit. She’s also worked with Angela Bassett before, and told stories about military contractors and other government authorities with divided loyalties. I’d really enjoy seeing her take something like this on.
And of course, I’d love to write it.