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Photos: Female action heroes

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  1. I spy

    Not too many women play action heroes, but Angelina Jolie has done it more than once. She plays Evelyn Salt in 2010's "Salt." She's a CIA officer who goes on the run when a defector accuses her of being a Russian sleeper spy. (Columbia Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Name of the game

    Video games are legendary for not translating well to the big screen. Jolie took on the genre twice, with "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider" in 2001 and "Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life" in 2003. (Paramount Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Mama bear

    Sigourney Weaver was one of the earliest female action heroes, playing Ellen Ripley in the "Alien" series. The first movie, "Alien," came out in 1979. Ripley really came into her own when she discovered a little girl, Newt, who'd been orphaned by the alien attack and defended her as she and the Colonial Marines fought their way off the planet. Carrie Henn, who played Newt, had never acted before or since. (20th Century Fox) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. She'll be back

    Linda Hamilton was one of the first buffed-up female action heroes, showing off her muscles when she played Sarah Connor in 1984's "The Terminator." Connor's son, John, is famously predicted to lead the humans against the Terminator killing machines, so they send Arnold Schwarzenegger back through time to kill her before she can ever give birth. (Orion Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Bloody Bride

    Uma Thurman plays The Bride in "Kill Bill," Quentin Tarantino's two-movie series from 2003 and 2004. After being nearly killed while pregnant at her wedding, she takes her bloody revenge. (Miramax Films) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Back in black

    Carrie-Anne Moss played deadly computer hacker Trinity in 1999's "The Matrix." The movie became known for its acrobatic, slow-motion stunts, while Moss' character became known for her unusual first name and all-black leather wardrobe. (Warner Bros.) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. 20th century fox

    Pam Grier played an early black female action hero in 1974's "Foxy Brown," as a woman who seeks bloody revenge when her boyfriend is shot. (American International Pictures via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Help me, Obi-wan Kenobi

    She may have famously asked Ben Kenobi for help, but Princess Leia Organa could also stand on her own two feet. Carrie Fisher played the princess and rebel leader in 1977's "Star Wars" and its sequels. (20th Century Fox via Everett Collection) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Back to the future

    Jane Fonda played the title character in 1968's "Barbarella," directed by her then-husband, Roger Vadim. The band Duran Duran took their name from the film's mad scientist, Dr. Durand-Durand. (Paramount Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Going under

    Kate Beckinsale plays Selene, a vampire warrior, in 2003's "Underworld" and its sequel 2006's "Underworld: Evolution." In the film, Beckinsale's vampires battle the brutal Lycans, or werewolves. (Columbia Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Here, kitty kitty

    There are fewer women superheroes and supervillains than men, but Halle Berry took on a stand-alone "Catwoman" film in 2004. The film appeared on Roger Ebert's list of his most-hated films. It won four Razzie Awards, including worst picture and worst actress, in 2005. (Warner Bros.) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Taking aim

    Anne Parillaud plays convicted felon Nikita, a French criminal recruited to work as a government assassin, in 1990's "La Femme Nikita." A TV series based on the film ran for five seasons on the USA Network, and the CW is reportedly working on another version of the series. (MGM) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Now they work for me

    Lucy Liu, Drew Barrymore and Cameron Diaz took on the roles of Alex, Dylan and Natalie in 2000's "Charlie's Angels" and 2003's sequel, "Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle." The movies were inspired by the original ABC TV series, but 1970s icons Jill, Kelly and Sabrina wouldn't even recognize them. (Columbia Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Enter the dragon

    Zhang Ziyi as Jen, all but flew through the air in the martial-arts classic "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," released in 2000. The film helped boost the popularity of Chinese films, specifically, the genre known as "wuxia," which features the adventures of martial artists in ancient China. (Sony Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. I dare you

    Ben Affleck played the title role in 2003's superhero flick "Daredevil," but Jennifer Garner saw some action of her own as his love interest, Elektra. She earned her own spinoff film in 2005. Her weapon of choice is a pair of Sai, traditional Okinawan daggers. (20th Century Fox) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Now you see her, now you don't

    Jessica Alba played Sue Storm, the Invisible Woman, in 2005's "Fantastic Four" and 2007's sequel, "Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer." (20th Century Fox) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Go ask Alice

    Milla Jovovich plays Alice in 2002's "Resident Evil," based on the horror video game series. She and police officer Matt attempt to fight off a horde of zombies in a futuristic and bleak land. She returns in 2004's "Resident Evil: Apocalypse," 2007's "Resident Evil: Extinction," and 2010's "Resident Evil: Afterlife." (Screen Gems) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Columbia Pictures
    Above: Slideshow (17) Female action heroes
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    WPA Poll via Getty Images
    Slideshow (89) Angelina Jolie
By
TODAY contributor
updated 7/20/2010 11:05:20 AM ET 2010-07-20T15:05:20

DC Comics marked the 600th issue of the “Wonder Woman” series in June. On Friday, “Salt,” starring Angelina Jolie, opens in theaters nationwide.

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The two events have more than sexy, tight-fitting outfits in common.

Wonder Woman’s intentions were always clear — fight evil, clobber bad guys. Evelyn Salt’s are not — her identity and motives are murky, a fact that propels the plot of the Phillip Noyce-directed thriller.

Still, they are two smart, empowered ladies with extraordinary skills, and they represent the evolution of the female action hero ... er, heroine.

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"It’s an archetype," said Lynda Carter, who soared to fame by playing "Wonder Woman" for three seasons in the 1970s television series. Carter, who is also a singer, is currently touring to promote her latest CD, "At Last."

"I read (Wonder Woman) comic books as a kid," Carter said. "Look at the timing of that series. There were no women on TV other than on sitcoms, and Angie Dickinson (“Police Woman”). In that way, it was groundbreaking to punch through that glass ceiling, kind of realizing the other half of the population wants their own heroes.”

Today, Jolie has been punching through the glass ceiling and karate-chopping past dirtbags in such slugfests as the “Lara Croft” films, “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” and “Wanted.” In “Salt,” she continues to add to her action cred as a CIA officer who goes on the run when she’s accused by a Russian defector of being a spy.

But Jolie is not the female Steven Seagal, Jean-Claude Van Damme or Chuck Norris, an action figure who knows no other line of work. Rather, she is an Academy Award-winning actress — claiming the best supporting actress Oscar for “Girl, Interrupted” in 2000 — who has expanded her repertoire to include the kicking of butt. Jolie has burnished her impeccable acting chops by working with such rarefied directors as Clint Eastwood (“Changeling”), Oliver Stone (“Alexander”) and Robert De Niro (“The Good Shepherd”).

She doesn’t make a steady diet out of action. But when she does serve it up, it tends to satisfy.

“The thing that makes her unique is her tremendous courage,” noted renowned acting teacher Wendy Girard, who has been guiding students in the Los Angeles area for over 35 years. “She’s a very powerful personality. When have we seen that in a woman? Joan Crawford used to be that way in her day, incredibly powerful.

“It’s a combination of her courage and passion and strength that makes her who she is and makes her really convincing at bringing an action element to her acting.”

Sigourney Weaver, 'Alien' action queen
Although Jolie currently occupies the throne of female action queen, she is only the latest in a long line of such death-defying divas, stretching back to December of 1941, when Wonder Woman made her debut in All Star Comics. There certainly had been many strong women in popular culture, but few who added physical prowess to their personas, although there are arguments to be made on behalf of various depictions of Annie Oakley and Calamity Jane, the Jane of Tarzan and Jane, and others.

Carter’s “Wonder Woman” aired its final episode on Sept. 11, 1979. By that time, Carter’s successor as the fiercest woman in Hollywood had already been chosen: Sigourney Weaver starred as Ellen Ripley in director Ridley Scott’s “Alien,” released on May 25 of that same year.

“I don’t think there’s much question that Sigourney Weaver, as Ripley in the ‘Alien’ movies, is the gold standard for this type of action hero,” said Bill Goodykoontz, film critic for the Arizona Republic and chief film critic for the Gannett chain. “She didn’t just kick ass, she evolved in interesting ways.

“From the beginning of ‘Alien’ to the end of ‘Aliens,’ she’d turned from a woman on a towing ship into a first-rate action heroine, fully the equal of any male counterpart," Goodykoontz said. "Jolie doesn’t compare, really, but it might not be entirely her fault. The action films she’s been in simply haven’t been as good. Could she make a character like Ripley as credible as Weaver did? Who knows? We’ll have to wait till she gets a similarly good role in a comparably good movie to find out.”

Yet there have been other actresses who scored knockouts in memorable action parts. They include Pam Grier in the title role of the 1974 film, “Foxy Brown”; Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor in “The Terminator” movies;  Carrie-Anne Moss in the “Matrix” series; Kate Beckinsale in the “Underworld” movies; Uma Thurman in the “Kill Bill” pictures; and most recently Zoe Saldana in “Avatar.”

Dan Speaker and Jan Bryant know their bone-crunching women. They run the Academy of Theatrical Combat in Burbank, Ca., and train actors and actresses in the fine arts of fight design, action choreography and weapons combat. Speaker cited Weaver as the one who broke the barrier, but noted that there were many who have gone unnoticed over the years.

“Before Sigourney Weaver, you saw women in action roles in odd, offbeat, weird barbarian movies,” he said. “And there were also a lot of female action heroes from China.”

Mixing prestige and power
In Jolie, Speaker sees a modern hybrid of prestige and power. “She’s sort of the new age, a legitimate actress,” he said. “You can see her doing serious parts, but you also buy her in action roles. She definitely has that fluidity and grace of movement.”

Added Bryant of Jolie: “I love her. I think she’s wonderful. Her capabilities in movement are terrific. Obviously I’m super concerned that the women who do these roles do them really well because we don’t get that much of an opportunity to show that kind of strength.”

Perhaps as evidence of how effective Jolie and her action sisters have been, Speaker and Bryant report a spike in the number of female students at their school. “We actually have more women in our classes than ever before,” Speaker said.

Carter, who said she is a fan of Weaver, Jolie, Saldana and others, remembered that television executives tried to kill both “Wonder Woman” and “The Bionic Woman” (starring Lindsay Wagner, which also ran for three seasons in the ‘1970s) before they had a chance to catch on.

“The public rallied around us,” she said. “They were hungry for it. The powers-that-be didn’t think a woman could keep an audience. They catered to a male audience.

“At the time, the '70s, it was an era of feminism, and there were many among the older crowd who railed against feminism, who thought they were going to see us play it as a butch-tough aggressive kind of female. When ‘Wonder Woman’ came along, it countered that thinking. She wasn’t feminist at all. She didn’t see what the big deal was.”

Carter said Wonder Woman simply had a lot in common with Salt, Ellen Ripley, Sarah Connor and others.

“She was accessible,” Carter said. “You liked her. You knew her. You felt a camaraderie. There was that humanness about her.”

Michael Ventre is a frequent contributor to TODAYshow.com. He lives in Los Angeles.

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Video: 'Salt': July 23

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