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Female Action Stars Have Gotten Too Skinny to Throw a Believable Punch

Zoe Saldana in Colombiana.

In the new action drama Colombiana (which opens tomorrow), we first meet heroine Cataleya as a young girl who aspires to be Xena, Warrior Princess when she grows up. Instead, when we check back in with Cataleya as an adult, she's become Zoe Saldana, and if there's one major difference between the action heroine she idolized and the one she has become (besides the fact that her bangs are way better), it's that Xena's Lucy Lawless had some believable heft to her, while Saldana resembles a supermodel who could be toppled not just by a gang of thugs but a stiff breeze. Saldana's a talented actress who can sell ferocity with her face, but her slender arms could snap in two if a stuntman grabbed her the wrong way, and when she roundhouse kicks an assailant, Saldana looks like a spider doing a cartwheel.

Of course, you don't need us to tell you that women in Hollywood are skinny. (Covers of Cosmo can make that point without words!) But right now, with superhero movies in vogue, action heroes and heroines seem to be racing to comically opposite extremes. Just call it the "conservation of muscles" law, where no body weight shall be created or destroyed: As men pack on weight for their Captain America moment, women have to keep the universe in balance by going on the cleanse. Look no further than The Dark Knight Rises, where the already buff Tom Hardy is bulking up to play the villainous Bane by eating a full chicken every two hours, while his female counterpart Anne Hathaway describes her Catwoman diet as "dust and dreams." Evocative, but probably not tasty!

Nowhere is this trend more evident than with the one female superstar who can get an action movie green-lit instantly, Angelina Jolie. Conceptually, it's clear why Jolie is seen as an action heroine: She radiates power, and she's intimidating even while standing still. The problem — and you can see it in last year's Salt, which kept her as covered up as possible — is that Jolie has gotten too thin for her punches and kicks to be believably forceful. She once filled out her underweight frame to play Lara Croft in Tomb Raider, but these days, she seems to be keeping one eye on the head she's about to kick and the other on the red-carpet dress she'll need to wriggle into soon.

At least there's some hope on the horizon: For the lead in his upcoming action flick Haywire, Steven Soderbergh cast Gina Carano, a mixed-martial-arts fighter making her acting debut. Carano is gorgeous and flat-abbed enough to land a Maxim photo spread (get ready to hear a lot of "knockout"-related puns), but her healthy frame looks like it could inflict actual damage, because it's called upon to do just that inside the octagon. At Comic-Con, Soderbergh played a clip of Carano brutally beating up Michael Fassbender, and in an era that's already saturated with action heroines, this scene still managed to elicit impressed winces: Ladykiller Magneto, snuffed out by a lady killer! Carano cuts a seriously impressive figure, and let it be a lesson to those other actresses who like to talk a good game about getting into shape for action roles: Until they let us see that essential, extra weight on their bodies, it's just empty calories.

Photo: Magali Bragard/TriStar Pictures