Hollywood gambles on action women to pull in the crowds

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The Independent US

Undeterred by the lukewarm response to the latest cinema exploits of Lara Croft and Charlie's Angels, Hollywood is preparing to unleash a slew of new blockbusters fronted by voluptuous, ass-kicking action heroines.

Catwoman, Wonder Woman and even Jinx, the bikini-wearing CIA spy played by Halle Berry in the most recent James Bond film, Die Another Day, are all about to become stars of their own multi-million-dollar franchises.

Given the tepid box-office takings for the most recent female-fronted action movies, the decision by executives to invest in a whole new wave of similar projects may, on the face of it, seem misguided. However, major studios are said to be increasingly confident that they will soon find a formula to replicate the "Buffy effect" - a buzzphrase for the popularity of the cult television show Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

The first of the new films to go into production is likely to be a long-awaited solo outing for Catwoman, the sultry nemesis of Batman. After years of rewrites, during which everyone from Nicole Kidman to Ashley Judd has been mooted for the title role, Halle Berry is finally set to play the temptress immortalised a decade ago by a purring Michelle Pfeiffer in Batman Returns.

Indeed, if producers get their way, Berry is likely to be kept very busy by the glut of proposed action-heroine franchises. Another project in active development is Jinx, the first ever bona fide James Bond spin-off, in which she would reprise her role as the sleuth she played in 007's most recent outing.

Of course, the Oscar-winning actress has plenty of form: as one of the stars of the X-men movies, she is already linked to one of Hollywood's most lucrative action franchises.

Given the current appetite for all things superhero-related, it is no surprise that the studios are also eyeing up Wonder Woman. Depending on who you talk to in the industry, the film, which is due to go into pre-production within months, will star either Sandra Bullock or Buffy herself (Sarah Michelle Gellar).

Other female-led action movies in the early stages of development include Alien 5, the latest instalment in the gothic science fiction franchise, which stars Sigourney Weaver. Meanwhile, Miramax has still to unveil its long-completed remake of Modesty Blaise, starring the little-known British actress Alexandra Staden as the secret agent in a role made famous by the Italian actress Monica Vitti in the 1966 film featuring Terence Stamp and Dirk Bogarde.

The planned plethora of new action-heroine movies has come as a surprise to many industry observers, given the less than stellar performance of the most recent entries in the canon. Lara Croft: Tomb Raider - The Cradle of Life entered the American box office chart at a lowly number four last month, while Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle plunged out of the top 10 within a week of opening with a chart-topping weekend turnover of $38m (£24m).

However, Steven Gaydos, the executive editor of Variety magazine, believes that rumours of the premature demise of the action-heroine genre will prove to have been exaggerated.

"Studios are still trying to cash in on the Buffy effect," he said. "Male action heroes will always dominate in this area, and they will continue, like Harrison Ford in Indiana Jones and Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator, to be cast in these roles into middle age. This is the one advantage they will always have over women.

"However, I believe we will see more and more female action heroes, and if something like Catwoman is made and it's a great movie, it will be a colossal hit.

"Halle Berry, for one, could front anything at the moment, she's so big. It's not always the idea itself, but what's in the groove that matters."