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Once upon a time, women were little more than pretty window dressing in action, horror, and sci-fi movies, relegated to screaming, crying, or fainting at the first sign of trouble. As simpering damsels in distress, they'd wait patiently for rescue to arrive, even while tied to railroad tracks. And while women who couldn't fight their way out of a wet paper bag are still common onscreen (though so are men these days -- did you see The Social Network?), times are changing. Screen sirens don't always need rescuing anymore: they sock the bad guy right in the jaw. While anyone can use a knife, gun, or rolled-up back issue of Tiger Beat to dole out punishment, some women fight mano a mano, like these seven who aren't afraid to let their fists do the talking.
Remember when Chuck Norris was insanely popular and you couldn't throw a punch without hitting a joke about Norris's strength or beard? I tell you, if this were a fair world, it'd be Cynthia Rothrock's turn to be an Internet sensation. She ought to be everywhere. The martial-arts legend doesn't fake the insane haymakers and roundhouse kicks she dishes out in flicks like China O'Brien and Female Reporter. She's a karate champion with six black belts, and her fists might be even more dangerous than her feet. One punch from Rothrock is enough to knock that beard right off of Norris.
Doesn't Geena Davis seem nice? Perhaps that's why her "I'm married to Renny Harlin, so I make action movies now" period in the mid-nineties was so shocking...and awesome. Even more shocking, though, is that she used those long arms and legs to kick all kinds of butt in The Long Kiss Goodnight as an assassin whose amnesia leads her to believe she is a suburban mom. Who knew Davis, who performed most of her own stunts in the film, could mete out action-movie-style blows with such ease? She seems so lovely and proper.
Swank, as Maggie of Million Dollar Baby (the greatest female movie boxer), uses her fists to improve her life and make something of herself. No, not by, you know, beating people up and taking their money (though she is more than capable of doing that as well) but by becoming a professional boxer. Swank is so convincing as Maggie -- a role for which she obviously trained rigorously -- that there's no way you'd get in the way of one of her flying fists. And never forget that, before being tutored by Clint Eastwood in Million Dollar Baby, she received the ultimate in fighting lessons from Miyagi (Pat Morita) in The Next Karate Kid. Watch out.
Though she first came to the attention of most Westerners in the 1997 James Bond flick Tomorrow Never Dies, she already had a decade of causing destruction with her fists in Hong Kong martial-arts movies. It was Ang Lee's masterful Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, however, that cemented her status as a worldwide action star -- as well it should have. Yeoh displays such staggering athleticism and power during the film's numerous fight scenes that you'd be better off getting in the way of a speeding bicycle on the streets of Hong Kong than one of Yeoh's punches. Fisticuffs have never looked so beautiful.
To this day she's a force to be reckoned with, but, man, in the seventies nobody could touch Pam Grier. Literally. She'd just hit you in the face if you did -- and look perfectly natural doing it. Grier was the unattainable height of cool, ruling the blaxploitation scene in flicks such as Friday Foster, Black Mama, White Mama, and Foxy Brown. In the last film, Grier takes no guff as Foxy, a woman seeking revenge for her murdered boyfriend. In one music- and action-packed scene, Foxy takes down an entire bar full of angry lesbians with right hooks that would make Rocky proud -- and with ample use of her "black belt in bar stools."
Okay, you don't mess with Sigourney Weaver. Why? One word: Ripley. If a massive killer ET can't hang against Weaver, how would a human fare? Okay, granted, as Ellen Ripley in Aliens, Weaver uses hydraulically augmented fists to knock the acidic crap out of the queen in the greatest interspecific slugfest of all time. But a punch thrown in a mechanical loader is still a punch thrown -- and bonus points for preceding it with one of the greatest lines in movie history: "Get away from her, you bitch!" That alien totally had it coming.
Zoe Bell had better know how to throw a punch (which she certainly does). After all, she's a stunt performer and coordinator par excellence. Ever since Quentin Tarantino strapped her to the hood of a speeding Dodge Challenger in Death Proof, she's been working as an actress and not simply a fall gal, but that doesn't mean she's not still doling out violence with her formidable fists on a regular basis. Now she talks while she does it. Be sure to check out Bitch Slap, which features Bell as Rawhide and what Bells calls the "longest, baddest, best bitch fight in cinema history."
These lovely ladies and their punching abilities leave me ashamed to say I've never been in a fistfight -- although if I were, it would end not in my walking out of a bar full of angry lesbians unscathed but in my sitting on the floor crying and picking up my teeth. Guess I'll leave the fisticuffs to the ladies who get paid to fake it really well.
Check out Hilary Swank's punching skills in Million Dollar Baby, Wed., Feb. 23, at 8PM | 7C.