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    Atomic Women

    Posted by Mike Finnegan on

    As if her Monster (2003) Best Actress Academy Award® performance as real-life serial killer winner Aileen Wuornos and her blazing turn as the indomitable Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) weren’t enough to enshrine her in the Tough Screen Sirens Hall of Fame, Charlize Theron blew away moviegoers once again this past weekend with her go-for-broke, action-packed portrayal of uberconfident MI6 superspy Lorraine Broughton in the new Cold War, graphic-novel-based espionage thriller Atomic Blonde (2017). Trained to a fare-the-well in weaponry, disguise and hand-to-hand combat and amazingly equipped to give as good as she gets, she proves unstoppable in a wicked-warrior, killing-machine style that can disarm, disable and dispatch any would-be male aggressor aiming to thwart her mission. Her formidable character is the latest in a once-rare but now expanding tradition of empowered, take-charge femmes in a summer cinematic season whose leading box-office success to date is the spectacular superhero saga of DC Comics icon Wonder Woman, directed by Monster's Patty Jenkins. Two noteworthy 1990s examples in that mode, both raw and uncompromising in their approach and savage in their violence, are also anchored by extraordinarily powerful women who turn the tables on the male-centric dynamic that seeks to oppress them at every turn. From Indian director Shekhar Kapur, who would later helm the two Cate Blanchett-crowned features Elizabeth and Elizabeth: The Golden Age as well as executive-produce and direct several episodes of the new TNT series Will about the young William Shakespeare, Bandit Queen (1994) depicts the true story of Phoolan Devi (Seema Biswas), a sexually-abused victim of India’s brutal Hindu caste system who survives a young life of humiliation and despair to channel her rage into the organization of a provincial bandit gang, repeatedly defying her nation’s strict cultural patriarchy to become a folk hero for downtrodden millions. Biswas’ feral and fearless performance earned her India’s National Film Award as the year’s Best Actress and neither she nor the film, a scalding critique of Indian society, hold anything back. Also taking no prisoners and leaving chaos in her wake is Lena Olin’s Russian mob assassin Mona Demarkov, the seductive, driven and whip-smart antagonist to Gary Oldman’s corrupt NYPD detective whose larcenous life is royally upended in director Peter Medak’s caustic neo-noir crime thriller Romeo Is Bleeding (1993). As reviewer Chuck Bowen notes in his Slant Magazine online essay: “The film’s chief pleasure springs from watching Olin unexpectedly upstage Oldman, an actor who seemed incapable of being upstaged at this point in his career. Mona, with her long legs, full lips, and reddish hair, resembles a lithe, live-action Jessica Rabbit – an association that might be intentionally courted given the film’s lack of subtlety. Mona is something relatively rare for noir: a heavily fetishized object who’s also accorded the stature of her own fetishism. In Romeo Is Bleeding, the woman’s sexual appetite has more agency than the man’s, but the sex is still just business per the paranoid and misogynistic tradition of noir. That sex is business is a turn-on for both parties, as the film refreshingly understands that men aren’t the only gender who objectifies.” Neither of the dangerous dames at the center of Bandit Queen and Romeo Is Bleeding are blondes, but each one’s effect on the men in their respective orbits ultimately proves atomic. Feel their nuclear fury on Twilight Time’s hi-def Blu-rays of Bandit Queen (available here: http://screenarchives.com/title_detail.cfm/ID/28468/BANDIT-QUEEN-1994/) and Romeo Is Bleeding (here: http://screenarchives.com/title_detail.cfm/ID/31809/ROMEO-IS-BLEEDING-1993/). And brace yourself for the next gender battle royale – this time on the tennis court – when the Emma Stone-Steve Carell Battle of the Sexes, about the historic match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs bounces into movie houses September 22. After all, it’s an ongoing story.