Cover Story: Babe in Arms

Monica Bellucci leads the pack of New Action Heroines

May 21, 2003 at 2:06 pm
Italian actress Monica Bellucci joins the pack of new action heroines as Persephone, the gun-toting bad girl in The Matrix Reloaded.

Monica Bellucci says she's had it with action films. The Italian actress spent most of the last two years working on The Matrix Reloaded, The Matrix Revolutions and Tears of the Sun. She sweated, carried fake guns, trudged through rain and mud and waited ad nauseam for technical scenes to be set up. One day, she just knew she had had enough.

"In an action movie, it's all very difficult for a female to find your place," she says, speaking earlier this spring in Los Angeles.

Bellucci's complaints aside, an astounding number of women take arms in this summer's cinematic action season, and audiences are already lining up for a taste of it. Consider the Hollywood machine's latest fail-safe formula for box-office success. Take an action film that any self-respecting guy's guy would pay to see, and add a modern, sassy and independent actress who can believably whoop butt. The film doubles its target demographic, and both men and women walk away happy.

Pistol-packing mamas mean box-office magic, and this summer's list is astounding.

Bellucci, with Carrie-Ann Moss and Jada Pinkett Smith, opened last week in the second installment in the Matrix series, The Matrix Reloaded. Halle Berry, Famke Janssen, Kelly Hu and Rebecca Romijn-Stamos kicked off the summer season earlier this month with X2: X-Men United.

Drew Barrymore, Cameron Diaz and Lucy Liu get down and dirty in the Charlie's Angels sequel in June, this time with Demi Moore joining the jiggle party. Peta Wilson has a role any actress would sink her teeth into as the vampire Mina Harker in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. And Angelina Jolie returns as the world's sexiest archaeologist, Lara Croft, in Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life.

The films, while all female-driven actioners, run the gamut of genres. In some, the action is hokey. In others, the women throw punches side-by-side with men. In still others, the women play hero and save helpless men.

Bellucci's contribution to The Matrix action is minimal, at best. She sports a gun and wicked curves, but her character Persephone appears more to enjoy sidestepping danger than dispensing it. Still, that didn't hamper her desire to work with the director-duo Andy and Larry Wachowski on the sequel and its already-filmed third installment.

"When I make a choice, it's because I want to work with the director," she says. "That's the first thing. Then the character, of course, and the script. I know that if the script is so-so, you can make a great movie if you have a good director. And you can have an amazing script, but if you don't have a great director, you're never going to have a good movie. So I have to be confident in the director first."

Linda Hamilton trusted James Cameron to turn her into the new breed of tough leading lady in 1991's Terminator 2, after he succeeded in toughening up Sigourney Weaver in 1986's Aliens. Other actresses to follow suit in summer actioners include Kristy Swanson in Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992), J-Lo's performance in Out of Sight (1998), Moss' debut as Trinity in the original Matrix (1999), the first Charlie's Angels (2000) and Jolie's entry as Tomb Raider (2001).

All were so successful commercially (if not artistically) that they spawned major movie franchises, small-screen adaptations and fanatic Web sites like Alex Smits' "Girls with Guns," a celebration of "attractive women who are strong and smart and don't take any shit from their idiot male counterparts."

Some actresses still find themselves tagged as love interests or (at best) sidekicks in summer action films. Kirsten Dunst was nothing more than a girl-in-distress in last year's Spider-Man, and Oscar-winner Jennifer Connelly looks to deliver more of the same in this summer's The Hulk.

Single-handedly boosting the action heroine ranks is the hit comic adaptation, X2, which boasts no fewer than five actresses flexing their girl power. Berry, Janssen, Hu and Romijn-Stamos, along with superhero-in-training Anna Paquin, dictate the action of the film more than their male counterparts. One of these heroines even saves the entire band of X-Men by sacrificing her life.

Janssen says the film's reliance on its women immediately endeared her to the script.

"It doesn't happen that often that you see one of those characters in an action movie, let alone five of them," she says, speaking during the film's press weekend. "It's very rare. It's great."

Yet, what's an actress to do once she tires of action roles? Here's showbiz irony for you: Many actresses use lead roles in summer action films to springboard to heavy dramatic leads.

Whereas the industry generally frowns on males for making an explosive summer film, it respects women more for it. When Berry won an Academy Award for her performance in Monster's Ball, released a year after she made the original X-Men film, she showed her peers a new path to acclaim. Her X2 co-stars are hoping for the same.

"When you do action, people notice it so much more," Hu says. "I think that it would be awesome to go back and do something I can sink my teeth into."

Bellucci isn't so sure she wants the fame that usually comes with appearing in a big action blockbuster. That wasn't why she signed on the Matrix movies. She did it because she likes risky projects.

Just look at her work in Gaspar Noé's gritty French film Irreversible, featuring a rape scene so disturbingly realistic Bellucci must convince people it was staged. That, she says, isn't the career path of someone looking to turn herself into the next summer action babe.

"If I really wanted fame, I would stay in America," she says. "I would move here, just do American movies. There are so many things I turn down just because they are big movies. But they aren't the kinds of things I want to do. I've decided the first thing I'm going to do when I get back to Paris is a French movie." SF&M