To claim that Hollywood has become a recycling factory of sorts — especially during the last two decades — would be paying it a compliment: a trash recycling factory would probably be more accurate. Lack of originality in storylines, settings and characters is accepted to such a degree that audiences around the world seem to be OK with it or even welcome it at times, gladly watching “film A which is just like film B, but in space” (where “space” can also be “WWII” or “Medieval Times” or what have you). No wonder, then, that any film achieving considerable success is now expected to be followed not just by its own sequels, but by other movies “inspired” by it too.
John Wick is a textbook example of such an… inspirational film. What nobody could have predicted back in 2014 — when that movie was released — is that Hollywood would offer to a pandemic-stricken audience not just one, not two, but three different films based on what’s basically a female version of the John Wick lead character. All in the same year no less.
That is exactly what happened this year, though, with The Protege, Kate and Gunpowder Milkshake all being released in 2021. All three films feature female protagonists playing the role of ruthless assassins forced to put their skills to work in order to just survive. All three offer plenty of shooting, choreographed fighting scenes, stylish direction and booming soundtracks. Plus, all three women get to accomplish what they set out to do in their own way. You know, just like Keanu Reeves in every John Wick, only it’s Maggie Q, Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Karen Gillan that do (most of) the shooting.
There are, of course, some differences between them, as well as between those and the John Wick series (Hollywood studios do have experienced legal teams after all). Plotlines get different twists here and there, a number of the main characters’ motives are not the same, a few of the supporting characters are more involved than others. But the essence of John Wick is there in every one of those films, from the gritty sequences and the comic-style action to the weapon-wielding and the smart gunplay, the criminal underbelly of cities and the neon signs, the introspective score and the aggressive electronica.
It’s what isn’t there that troubles the mind, though. And that is a woman’s touch. In their effort to provide strong female leads — to get the message across that they can be just as tough as male ones can, probably? — all three films just replace one male assassin with a female one. No changes, no adjustments, no difference in approaching difficult or downright impossible situations. What we’re constantly watching during The Protege, Kate and Gunpowder Milkshake is three women — more, actually, but let’s just stick to the leads for now — getting shot at, getting wounded, getting beaten up almost to an inch of their life in an effort to survive, yes, but also to prove… what, exactly, to their audience?
One can’t help thinking that female assassins, like the ones depicted in these films, would have survived for that long in this line of work by being smarter. Subtler. By being more inventive, more efficient than brutal. By not just exchanging blows or bullets with criminal masterminds, trained thugs or other assassins and hoping for the best. What we get instead is gratuitous violence that these women have to suffer in a nonsensical, almost videogamey way. On more than one occasion yours truly was fully expecting an energy bar to appear depleted and flashing above the head of Maggie Q, Mary Elizabeth Winstead or Karen Gillan, informing the audience that yes, this is in fact the extend of their endurance. “See? She’s this close to game over now!”
Is it pointless to look for realism in action flicks such as The Protege, Kate or Gunpowder Milkshake? Maybe. Or… maybe not: fictional worlds, plots and settings need to make even a little bit of sense, follow some kind of internal logic, in order to be believable and maybe more enjoyable. These “John Wick, but female” films give the impression that at no point in their production was that angle considered. What’s more, films depicting modern female assassins could be much more interesting if they strived to include scenes where the way a woman’s mind works would offer a distinct approach, where it would make a difference compared to what a male assassin is expected to do. The possibilities are numerous… if Hollywood actually explored them, that is.
Does that sound like something that would belittle female leads? Does it even sound sexist? Hopefully, not at all: if anything, women today need to be represented in a more realistic, more truthful way in all forms of art. To be depicted as the capable beings they are, who can do things their way, instead of being conveniently “empowered” to do things the way men would. Maybe then films like The Protege, Kate and Gunpowder Milkshake would not come across as “John Wick with ladies”, but as something more.
Oh, and for people who would like to watch some good female-led films where gratuitous violence — in their specific context — does make sense, there’s always Kate Beckinsale’s Jolt and Charlize Theron’s Atomic Blonde: these are more or less like Jason Statham’s Crank and Daniel Craig’s Skyfall but… you know. With ladies.