Zoe Saldana in "Colombiana"
You look so familiar, Colombiana – have we met before? Perhaps it was way back in “The Professional,” or in O-Ren Ishii’s gorgeous animated backstory in “Kill Bill Vol 1”? Or perhaps it was just last summer in “Salt.” Or this spring in “Hanna”? Oh Colombiana! Please tell me you have something new to say, some fresh twist, some especially inventive way of delivering roundhouse kicks to the head. As a devotee of female assassin movies, I want to believe.
Our culture seems to be very concerned with the possibility of women becoming gun-toting vigilantes as a way of coping with trauma and injustice. Many female assassin movies even fall within the well-established “rape and revenge” film sub-genre, and both categories have been in constant arthouse and multiplex rotation since the 1970s. While we revel in the minutiae of each wronged woman’s crusade to destroy their foe, we’re rarely shown what follows – revenge is presented as the ultimate satisfaction. But is it really? The only instance in which I recall this being discussed is in “Kill Bill,” when Michael Madsen asks Daryl Hannah (who presumes her enemy to be dead): “Which ‘R’ are you filled with: relief or regret?” According to Madsen, it’s always one or the other. Looking back at our list of vengeful angels of death, one wonders how each of these characters might answer that question, long after the credits have rolled.
Womankind’s capacity for revenge has plenty of literary precedent.”When one woman strikes at the heart of another, she seldom misses, and the wound is invariably fatal,” claims Les Liaisons Dangereuses’ Marquise de Merteuil (played fabulously by Glenn Close in the unforgettable movie adaptation). Poor old Miss Havisham in Great Expectations turned her adopted daughter into a tool for vengeance against the entire male sex. But striking the heart is one thing, and striking the jugular is another. We are not meant to look too kindly upon Medea, for example, though she has become a subject of fascination for many modern feminists and authors.
A much closer analog to our cinematic interest in female assassins is Judith, that heroine of the Bible (depending on the denomination – some no longer include her book) who ended a war with the Assyrians by using her womanly wiles to infiltrate their camp and “manfully” beheading their general, Holofernes:
[Full text here.] The tale of Judith became a guaranteed crowd-pleaser – she turned up as a minor character in Dante’s Paradiso and even Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and continues to inspire artists of all mediums (I’ve always suspected that the scene in “Showgirls” in which Nomi Malone seduces and KO’s the rock star who raped her best friend can be directly traced to this legend). Though Judith is a widow (albeit a very sexy one) and has no one to avenge except her god, her role as a beautiful instrument of divine justice wouldn’t be out of place in any summer blockbuster. For the record, the ending makes it quite clear that the only “R” she experiences is relief.
And Judith stood before the bed praying with tears, and the motion of her lips in silence,
Saying: Strengthen me, O Lord God of Israel, and in this hour look on the works of my hands, that as thou hast promised, thou mayst raise up Jerusalem thy city: and that I may bring to pass that which I have purposed, having a belief that it might be done by thee.
And when she had said this, she went to the pillar that was at his bed’s head, and loosed his sword that hung tied upon it.
And when she had drawn it out, she took him by the hair of his head, and said: Strengthen me, O Lord God, at this hour.
And she struck twice upon his neck, and out off his head, and took off his canopy from the pillars, and rolled away his headless body.
And after a while she went out, and delivered the head of Holofernes to her maid, and bade her put it into her wallet.
So let’s see what you’ve got, “Colombiana.” Here’s hoping that your writers know what’s been done, what’s been overdone, and what’s worth doing again – and that just maybe, they’ve done a little bible study. If things go well, I’ll be the first one to welcome you to the canon.