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The Mother sees Jennifer Lopez take the well-worn path from A-list to badass babe

Jennifer Lopez's role in The Mother sees her become the latest female star to go from A-list acclaim to all-out action

Jennifer Lopez and Lucy Paez in The Mother

Jennifer Lopez as the otherwise-unnamed The Mother and Lucy Paez as Zoe. Image: Doane Gregory/Netflix © 2023.

Back in the devil-may-care days of early 2020, Jennifer Lopez’s cinematic star was in the ascendancy. Thanks to her role as a savvy stripper whose abundant fur coat was matched only by her capacity for fleecing loathsome Manhattan stockbrokers in 2019’s superb Hustlers, J.Lo was racking up so many award nominations – from the schmaltzy Golden Globes to the influential Screen Actors Guild – that when she was overlooked by the Academy it was a major news story.

Despite that Oscars snub, the glowing critical halo around Hustlers felt like it should be the launchpad for
an exciting new phase of Jennifer Lopez’s screen career. After a pandemic pause that was heavy on nuptials – from her 2022 marriage to Ben Affleck to the action/rom-com hybrid Shotgun Wedding at the end of the year – Lopez’s next major headlining role belatedly arrives this week.

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The Mother is a Netflix thriller in which she plays a retired assassin compelled to get back to work when some former foes target the daughter she gave up 12 years ago. The trailer’s sizzle-reel of a teeth-gritted J.Lo dusting off a case full of guns, doing brutal pull-ups in a vest top and exploding enemy skidoos promises an avalanche of kick-ass action, even if the hectic cross-cutting makes it hard to judge whether her big line – “I’m a killer… but I’m also a mother!” – will feel like catharsis or half-arsedness. 

But watching Jennifer Lopez confidently cock a sniper rifle unlocked something else in my brain: why does it feel like every woman who deservedly builds up some critical buzz almost immediately gets cast as an action badass? If you look at recent decades of female award nominees and winners it suggests either a well-worn Hollywood playbook or a depressing dearth of mainstream female-led projects beyond those that involve neck-snapping and stilettos (knives and/or heels).

Once you become aware of the awards-to-assassins pipeline you start to see it everywhere. Geena Davis went from Thelma & Louise Oscar nomination in 1992 to platinum-blonde deadly amnesiac in 1996’s The Long Kiss Goodnight. Saoirse Ronan was Oscar-nominated for Atonement aged 13 and was judo-throwing surprised henchmen as a pint-sized super-soldier in Hanna just a couple of years later. Towards the other end of the age spectrum Allison Janney’s heartwarming Oscar win in 2018 for I, Tonya seemingly paved the way for her own Netflix beat-em-up Lou, in which her crotchety ex-CIA asset fights dirty to rescue a kidnapped girl.

This apparent edict that all prominent female stars have to get at least one badass babe role under their belt feels more than a little sexist. When Christoph Waltz or Rami Malek bags an Academy Award, they get bumped to the front of the Bond-villain queue, a high-profile payday that for the most part requires wearing fancy suits in a luxurious lair. When Charlize Theron, Angelina Jolie or Jennifer Lawrence follow up Oscar nominations with lethal action leads in Æon Flux, Salt or Red Sparrow it’s off to a boot camp for six weeks of krav maga and kickboxing so they can convincingly throttle burly stunt performers. 

In early 2022, it felt like this trend had reached a potentially critical overload with The 355, a franchise
non-starter that roped in Jessica Chastain (three-time Oscar nominee and one-time winner), Penélope Cruz (four-time nominee and one-time winner), Lupita Nyong’o (Best Supporting Actress Oscar 2014) and Diane Kruger (Cannes Best Actress 2017) for some underpowered espionage action. But now poor Ana de Armas – deservedly Oscar-nommed for playing Marilyn Monroe in Blonde – is expected to single-handedly keep the John Wick flame alive as a revenge-driven prima donna in franchise spin-off Ballerina, despite already banking gun-toting supporting roles in No Time To Die, The Gray Man and the recent Ghosted.

There is, of course, no reason why award-winning female actors should not have the opportunity to lead popcorn action movies. It just seems a shame that while they are expected to commit to intense physical conditioning, punishing martial-arts drills and extensive firearm training so they can kill it on-screen, other areas of production – writing, directing, marketing – often seem happy to take a much lazier path. So if The Mother is a duffer, hopefully J.Lo will know whose butt to kick next time.

The Mother is on Netflix from May 12

Graeme Virtue is a film and TV critic

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.

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