The Fate of the Furious just celebrated its third straight week atop the box office, passing the $1 billion mark in the process. With Fate punching its own ticket to the billion-dollar club, Universal has reportedly started development on a spinoff property that would feature Dwayne Johnson’s Luke Hobbs and Jason Statham’s Deckard Shaw, a stopover movie to keep Fast fans engaged while the franchise’s ninth installment comes together. Those dueling alpha males are an easy pick to establish a new lucrative pipeline for Universal, but what about the franchise’s forever ride-or-die? What about Michelle Rodriguez?
After nearly two decades as a singular presence in the action genre, it’s time for Rodriguez to get a worthy starring vehicle. And if the Fast franchise won’t give it to her, she needs to get her own.
If Rodriguez wanted to, she could easily continue to play strong and silent secondary ass kickers for years to come. She’s barely aged since breaking out in Karyn Kusama’s Sundance darling Girlfight, in 2000, and only seems to get more believable as a battle-hardened brawler as time goes by. But by carving out a unique niche in Hollywood, Rodriguez has become victim of her own success.
No matter how fruitful it is to be the woman with the foremost scowl in movies, playing 50 shades of supporting hard ass is getting tedious for Rodriguez. “I am kind of tired of doing the monotonous PG-13 stuff that is very predictable,” she told Variety while doing press for her recent movie, The Assignment. “You reach a point where there’s 15 years of the same stuff, and you go, ‘You know what? Either I got to switch up my game or I have to quit this stuff.’ Once you stop being curious about what you do, then I think it’s time to move on to something else.”
The Assignment was the actress’s first real shot at solo action stardom, but for reasons both aesthetic and political the film is probably best lost to time. That may have been the wrong script to take a big swing on, but putting Rodriguez front and center is long past due. After the teens-save-the-world YA boom of Divergent and Hunger Games, more mature actresses are building the second act of their careers around high-adrenaline roles. Krysten Ritter’s career has surged with the success of Jessica Jones. Charlize Theron has gone from Imperator Furiosa to Atomic Blonde. Jessica Chastain is lined up to play the vigilante comic hero Painkiller Jane, and whatever Gal Gadot, Brie Larson, and Scarlett Johansson get up to over the next five years, they’ll likely be planning their schedules around Justice League and Avenger duties. Audiences are proving they’ve got bigger appetites for virtuoso violence and high-concept action films than ever before, and if Rodriguez can get paired with a savvy director and a script that isn’t a 40-year-old piece of bad noir, there’s a big market for her brand of R-rated, gun-toting antihero.
While Rodriguez will likely never be tapped for a role in a big-budget superhero franchise, the success of Fast castmate Jason Statham has proved that being a prolific genre workhorse need not relegate a star to strictly B-movie success anymore. Throughout the 1980s and ’90s, guys like Steven Seagal, Chuck Norris, and Jean Claude Van Damme churned out fight films at the same clip Statham does now, but what lifts the bald Brit past them is the same crucial element that makes Rodriguez a viable solo star: While Seagal and Norris were trained martial artists who passed as actors, Statham and Rodriguez are incredibly charismatic actors who can pass as fighters. They also look as comfortable taking down henchmen as they do seducing women.
Consider The Transporter. The franchise hasn’t been successful because it’s full of great movies. It’s successful because Statham is an utterly watchable screen presence. When he left, the series withered and died. The same is true of Rodriguez. Aside from a handful of exceptions (The Breed, Battle in Seattle, Tropico de Sangre), Rodriguez has spent the past 16 years playing the same basic character. She’s been a surly, swaggering, take-no-shit fighter in everything from S.W.A.T. to Resident Evil to Machete to Battle Los Angeles to Avatar to Lost. Despite reprising that same role so many times, Rodriguez has stayed compelling through sheer moxie, and look no further than Girlfight to see how her brooding magnetism doesn’t wane when tasked with carrying a film.
Even as a perennial supporting figure to bigm strong men, Rodriguez has managed to turn herself into a genre of her own. Sure, another actress could have played Letty in The Fast and the Furious, but a more disposable sidepiece would likely have stayed dead after being put down in the fourth installment of the series. The franchise only lasted one movie without Rodriguez, and Fast & Furious 6 was built entirely around bringing her back into the family. Seeing her get more screen time and more lines in Furious 7 and Fate of the Furious has been great, but she’s usually always talking about fulfilling some man’s mission instead of setting out on her own.
There are other female performers building action-centric careers. Gina Carano, who memorably squared off against Rodriguez in 6, has racked up a few starring roles since Steven Soderbergh utilized her to note-perfect effect in Haywire, and stuntwoman Zoë Bell has released a string of fight films catering to her specific set of skills. If all goes well, each of those women will be able to amass respectable filmographies in the vein of Maggie Cheung and Cynthia Rothrock, the female martial-arts masters of the ’80s and ’90s. But Rodriguez is a level apart from specialists like them. She’s a movie star with a path that should look more like Statham or Mark Wahlberg than the B-movie queens of decades past. The Assignment’s Frank Kitchen was a bad trial run, but Hollywood needs to realize it’s got a queer Latina enforcer on its hands, just waiting for her chance to become the next Chev Chelios. With all due respect to the Stath, that sounds a lot more like the kind of hero we need in 2017.