Scarlett Johansson has always been tailor-made for superheroism. From her curvy physique to her breathy voice to her inviting eyes, our Sexiest Woman Alive (an honor she's already received twice) has always come across as somehow extraordinary (in the literal beyond-ordinary way). So she's ideal for Luc Besson's Lucy, a heady, loopy action extravaganza out this weekend, in which she plays a beauty who, thanks to an accidental overdose of narcotics, gains astonishing mental abilities that allow her to control reality itself. Matching the glamour of a model with the steely glares of a killer, Johansson is all come-hither eroticism and chilly detachment. In Lucy, she's something like the ideal specimen, a figure of amazing and almost terrifying otherworldliness, sharing quite a few similarities with her performance earlier this year as a predatory alien in Under the Skin. Alluringly ensnaring and dispatching adversaries, Johansson seems like some comic-book artist's fantasy vision of feminine badassery come to life.
Or, rather, she seems like the evolutionary next step in French writer/director Luc Besson's cinema-du-female-ass-kicking. For the past 25 years, Besson has made stories about dangerous, sexy women his directorial signature (that is, when he's not producing lean, mean Euro-American B-movies like The Transporter, Kiss of the Dragon, Unleashed, and Taken). There would be no Resident Evil or Underworldfranchises without Besson, whose 1990s output showed that there was money, from male moviegoers specifically, to be made on the sight of slinky, sensual women striking back against oppressive enemies, all while keeping their warmth, sensitivity, and humor. In honor of Besson's latest feat, here's a rundown of his prior vicious vixens, all of whom laid the groundwork for Johansson in Lucy, queen of them all.
ANNE PARILLAUD, LA FEMME NIKITA (1990)
The template for so many subsequent, likeminded efforts, La Femme Nikita charts the tale of a thief named Nikita (Parillaud) who's sent to prison and given a choice: be killed, or become an assassin. Choosing the latter, Nikita is fashioned into a deadly dame in a short, skimpy dress. Neither Point of No Return, a 1993 remake starring Bridget Fonda, nor the late-1990s TV series starring Peta Wilson, can match the stylish intensity of Besson's original, which made Parillaud an icon of female might.
NATALIE PORTMAN, LÉON: THE PROFESSIONAL (1994)
Making her big-screen debut at the age of 12, Portman brings both heart and quasi-pedophilic romance to Léon: The Professional, Besson's breakout English-language hit about a solitary French assassin (Jean Reno) who reluctantly teams with a young girl in trouble with psychopathic cops led by Gary Oldman. Portman's performance boasts a precocious maturity that immediately marked her as an A-lister-in-the-making, playing off both her still-blossoming attractiveness (even in that creepy Marilyn Monroe/Madonna bit) and her gun-wielding tenacity.
MILLA JOVOVICH, THE FIFTH ELEMENT (1997), THE MESSENGER: THE STORY OF JOAN OF ARC (1999)
The second leading lady to temporarily become Besson's wife (after Anne Parillaud), Milla Jovovich reached stardom in large part thanks to her collaborations with the director, first as a strange-talking, skimpily dressed extraterrestrial in the outlandish sci-fi epic The Fifth Element, and then as the divinely inspired revolutionary leader in the more grim The Messenger. In both cases, Jovovich proved to be a magnetic force of fury whose facility with firearms and flip-kicks were matched by sturdy, won't-back-down resolve, thus paving the way for her run as the zombie-killing queen of the Resident Evil series.
RIE RASMUSSEN, ANGEL-A (2005)
Tall, blonde Rie Rasmussen (a model-turned-actress previously seen in Brian De Palma'sFemme Fatale) is a winged guardian to Jamel Debbouze's suicidal small-time crook inAngel-A, a largely misbegotten endeavor that nonetheless continued Besson's tradition of fixating on gorgeous women apt to take your head off if you treat them the wrong way. Like a model sent down from heaven, Rasmussen is all Euro-sleek splendor and charm, towering over the diminutive Debbouze like some sort of mythic goddess, cigarette dangling from her mouth.
MICHELLE PFEIFFER, THE FAMILY (2013)
After Besson took a detour into stately, historical drama with 2011's The Lady, he returned to more familiar territory with The Family, a saga of mobsters living in France under witness protection that gave Michelle Pfeiffer the opportunity to talk tough and act tougher as the wife of Robert De Niro's godfather. Her explosive response to a rude, anti-American grocery store clerk reconfirmed, as does Lucy, that for Besson, there's nothing quite as glorious as a woman whose loveliness is matched by her lethality
by nick schager.