Pam Grier walks into a bar. Sounds like the beginning of a joke, but it’s actually the setup for one of the great fight scenes of the 1970s.
Grier played the title character in 1974’s Foxy Brown, a woman who poses as a high-end escort to get revenge on the gangsters who killed her G-Man boyfriend. When her undercover work brings her to a seedy bar, she confronts Bobbie, a tough-talking patron (played by Jeannie Epper who was also Lynda Carter’s stunt double on Wonder Woman).
“Listen, skinny,” says Bobbie, “before you start talking tough, I better warn you. I got a black belt in karate. So why don’t you get out of here quietly, while you still have some teeth left in that ugly face?”
Before you can say, “You go, girl,” Foxy clobbers Bobbie with a wooden stool, slamming her in the face then shattering it across her back.
“And I got my black belt in bar stools!” says Foxy.
Grier could deliver a line and a punch, attributes that allowed her to cut a swathe in the male-dominated action movie market of the 1970s.
This weekend Scarlett Johansson adds to Grier’s kick- butt legacy on the big screen with Lucy, an all-out actioner about a woman who becomes a superhuman when a drug allows her to use 100 per cent of her brain capacity. “I’m able to do things I’ve never done before,” she says. “I feel everything and can control the elements around me.”
Johansson joins a list of dangerous distaff action stars like Michelle Yeoh (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), Jenette Goldstein (Aliens), Angelina Jolie (Wanted, Salt, Mr. & Mrs. Smith, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider) and Uma Thurman (Kill Bill, Parts 1 & 2) who have given Schwarzenegger and Stallone a run for their money.
Perhaps the wildest female action movie of all time is 1965’s “ode to female violence,” Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! starring Tura Satana as the thrill-seeking go-go dancer Varla.
Experienced in martial arts, Satana did her own stunts and brought her unique style — black leather gloves, Germaine Monteil eyeliner and layers of Max Factor pancake makeup — to the film. She even supplied some of the movie’s most memorable lines.
When a gas station attendant ogles her cleavage while extolling the virtues of being on the open road and seeing America, Satana ad libbed, “You won’t find it down there, Columbus!”
Time critic Richard Corliss called Satana’s performance “the most honest, maybe the one honest portrayal in the [director Russ] Meyer canon and certainly the scariest.”
“I took a lot of my anger that had been stored inside of me for many years and let it loose,” Satana said of her most famous role.
“I helped to create the character Varla and helped to make her someone that many women would love to be like.”
It’s also illegal, dangerous and morally unsound, but that doesn’t stop Hollywood from featuring vigilantes in their stories.
Comic books have supplied the movies with vigilantes for years. According to comicbookmovie.com, “It is important to state one truth,” they write, “[and] that is, all comic book heroes, unless sanctioned by the government, are vigilantes.” That’s a wide group that includes, among others, Batman, Spiderman and Iron Man.
Lesser known is Rorschach, the anti-hero of the graphic novel The Watchmen and played by Jackie Earle Haley in the movie of the same name. He’s a masked crime fighter who believes in only good and evil. This black-and-white morality drives his ruthless need to punish evil-doers at all costs.
“Were it not for costumed vigilantism,” says the actor, “he’d have nothing.”
Rorschach is effective and lethal, but Paul Kersey didn’t wear a costume to earn his star on the Vigilante Walk of Fame. As played by Charles Bronson in five Death Wish movies, he cleaned up the streets with an efficiency that would make the Watchmen envious.
In the original 1974 film Kersey is an architect driven to taking the law into his own hands following the brutal murder of his wife. “If the police don’t defense us,” he says, “maybe we ought to do it ourselves.”
Star Bronson was quick to say that he didn’t “advocate anyone taking the law into their own hands,” but knew that the Death Wish movies were popular because, “Audiences like to see the bad guys get their comeuppance.”
Harry Brown is a gritty Gran Torino with British accents and a dash of Death Wish. Michael Caine plays the title character as High Noon’s Gary Cooper, but instead of being set on the wide open plain, the action in this Teabag Western takes place in the urban terrain of the Elephant and Castle section of London.
“This movie changed me,” Caine said. “I started out thinking, ‘Let’s go out and make a movie about killing all these scumbags,’ and then I met these people and realized they were helpless, just as much as the victims, and they had been neglected and they need help.”