A forced viewing of “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” this past weekend evoked some conflicted feelings. On one hand, I was proud of Gov. Schwarzenegger for rising so far above his days of kicking cyborg ass. On the other, I cringed at Linda Hamilton’s inability to kick ass at all.

Steven Neff
Uma Thurman in “My Super Ex-Girlfriend.” (Courtesy of 20th Century Fox)
Steven Neff
Angelina Jolie in “Mr. & Mrs. Smith.” (Courtesy of 20th Century Fox)

When the wife-beater clad Hamilton marches out of a motor home, Rambo-style, with guns and ammo strapped to her back, the word “cool” doesn’t exactly come to mind. “Psychotic breakdown” is more like it. Accordingly, her mission to kill a scientist fails when she collapses in tears in front of his terrified family after she barely manages to wound him.

As distant as the 1991 debut of “T2” is, action-film heroines haven’t progressed much since. They are consistently delegated to some of the worst scripts in Hollywood, roles that frequently involve more fluff and sex appeal than action. While the sex inevitably sells, isn’t it sad when the only thing memorable about “Catwoman” is Halle Berry’s skintight leather costume? But then again, how sexy is a purring 38 year old anyway?

But “Catwoman” isn’t the only action flop in recent memory to go down at the hands of a female lead. She has plenty of company with the likes of “Elektra,” “Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle” and the especially atrocious “Ultraviolet.” None of them will ever catch a whiff of an Oscar, no matter how many miles Demi Moore runs in a skimpy black bikini.

The problem with these films is their fixation with keeping their characters stereotypically female at heart. Love interests, children and deep-seated insecurities comprise the uninspired weaknesses of these heroines. Even Kate Beckinsale’s vicious and cold-blooded vampire in “Underworld” ends up falling in love with a man – which then prevents her from killing him when she has the chance. Male heroes are allowed to handle this differently. If the Terminator were in “Underworld,” he would simply shoot the source of the problem in both legs and call it a day.

In the bloodbaths of “Kill Bill,” Uma Thurman appears to be immune to these weaknesses. Her vengeful character is able to enact her rage both skillfully and convincingly. In addition to single-handedly ripping out a fellow woman’s eyeball, Thurman can also pound her way out of a buried coffin with just enough blood and pain to make it knuckle-breakingly realistic. However, her most recent film – aptly entitled “My Super Ex-Girlfriend” – has made me re-evaluate my faith in Uma’s credibility.

Perhaps the only contemporary Hollywood woman who’s thus far proven to consistently deliver a competent heroine is Angelina Jolie. Sure, her legendary looks are partly responsible for the modest success of “Tomb Raider,” but at least no one laughed at her in the process. Instead, Jolie’s character is able to pull off the type of shaken-not-stirred confidence that accompanies any great fictitious hero. And she is also capable of genuinely falling in love with a man and killing him upon the discovery that he’s a gold-digging traitor. Beckinsale should take notes.

Jolie’s confidence carries over into her “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” role as a domesticated assassin who finds out that her husband, played by the savory Brad Pitt, is a rival assassin who must be terminated. While love predictably prevails, it’s not without an extensive fistfight between the two that highlights Jolie’s left hook. Like the mantra of “America’s Next Top Model,” Jolie has mastered the art of being both fierce and feminine.

But with the exception of Jolie, the future looks bleak for action heroines. Currently, there’s nothing on the horizon but “DOA: Dead or Alive,” a video-game-inspired film set for release in December. Its most talked-about feature to date consists of a three-minute-long beach-volleyball scene. Clearly, another exciting Oscar-nominee season has begun.

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