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Summer Sneaks

A guy's weakness for strong women

Who needs hardware? These action heroines have killer looks. And something more. All for the boys of summer.

May 04, 2003|Brian Lowry | Times Staff Writer

At the risk of stereotyping, it's fair to say many of the young men who provide the crucial core audience for science fiction and fantasy films feel a certain conflict about beautiful women -- a mix of admiration and terror that won't surprise anyone who ever attended a "Star Trek" convention or waited in line to see a "Star Wars" prequel.

It's also well established that while young boys enjoy ogling girls, watching cinematic sex or romance can be, well, kind of gross.

That could be why movies released over the extended summer season -- essentially from now till Labor Day -- are seldom over-thought. Instead, they're designed to attract undiscriminating young males by offering action, and a bit more action, as a way to generate "boffo" opening weekends. Yet this summer, the Armani-clad studio executives have refined their formula -- adopting a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup approach that combines two tastes into a more enticing confection.

Those elements would be action (a polite way of saying "violence") and stunning screen goddesses (or "sex," in a beer commercial sort of way) -- the thought being that teenage and young adult males will be especially apt to fork over video-game money to see women adept in the art of butt-kicking. As long as you're going to put attractive women on screen, under this theory, at least let them do something -- from shooting up the place to unleashing bolts of lightning.

As a grown-up male, I can vouch for the efficacy of this marketing-driven logic, though it's hardly new.

On television, melding action with curvaceous protagonists dates back to Diana Rigg in "The Avengers," while more recent babes clad in leather (or less) who could fight like the boys include the women of "Xena, Warrior Princess," "Alias," "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Dark Angel" and the short-lived "Birds of Prey."

In science fiction, women long have had a place beyond that of damsel in distress. Princess Leia fought alongside the men and critters in the "Star Wars" trilogy, and it would be hard to surpass the bravery of Sigourney Weaver's character in "Aliens" (before the franchise degenerated into its misguided second and third sequels, anyway), charging as she did into a room full of face-hugging monstrosities.

Part of this came from a pursuit of greater equality -- the key to Weaver's role having been a bit of gender-blind casting when producers of the original 1979 movie let a woman be the last human standing. Eventually, the "Star Trek" franchise offered up a female captain (Kate Mulgrew's Kathryn Janeway) in the mid-1990s with its fourth series "Voyager" -- a departure from Captain Kirk romancing comely life-forms across the galaxy.

The transition from those characters to today's, if subtle, appears to be ratcheting up the sex appeal quotient among these newer heroines, after a legacy where beautiful women were there mostly to be rescued, seduced or -- if they were really interesting -- creatively done in by the likes of James Bond.

Indeed, the last few Bond films have showcased females who could be sexy and handle an automatic weapon (Michelle Yeoh in "Tomorrow Never Dies," Halle Berry in "Die Another Day"), which provides a pretty good road map to this summer, where the lineup of heroic women looks to be near record levels. There's no better symbol than the concept of placing an indestructible female cyborg (played by Kristanna Loken) at the center of "Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines."

Women play a prominent role in other summer sequels, from "The Matrix Reloaded" (which adds Jada Pinkett Smith and "Malena" star Monica Bellucci to the festivities, along with holdover Carrie-Anne Moss) to "X2: X-Men United," bringing back Berry, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, former Bond girl Famke Jannsen and Anna Paquin, plus Kelly Hu, the former Miss Teen USA last seen in "The Scorpion King."

Other wide-screen displays of hair and makeup artistry are to be found in "Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle" -- its predecessor having blended martial-arts gimmickry with Revlon commercials -- and "Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life," which, by its very existence, gives meaning to the phrase "review-proof."

Those behind the "X-Men" franchise, in particular, had their choice of comic book heroines and deftly provided an array of female characters, giving them a bit more emotional material to chew on in "X2."

This is a small but noteworthy improvement over its predecessor, where fans couldn't help but notice that Berry -- in pre-Academy Award mode as Storm, the white-haired mutant weather-witch -- spent what little screen time she had getting the bejesus knocked out of her.

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