When it comes to popcorn movies, boys tend to rule the box office. The Will Smiths and Tom Cruises of the world blast their way through blockbuster after blockbuster because they are the new action heroes, marquee names who will put millions of butts in seats by sending aliens, monsters, and various baddies into oblivion. But what of the ladies of Hollywood? While most A-list actresses only dip their toes into blockbuster waters once or twice a decade, a handful of leading ladies have made a name for themselves in the buttery realm of the popcorn movie -- and for that, we salute them!
But who's the reigning popcorn actress of our generation? Taking "popcorn movie" to include big-budgeted actioners and modestly-produced horror pics alike and leaving out films that better qualify as comedies or rom-coms, and giving "our generation" to mean films released in the last decade, I've selected the five greatest butt-kicking, hero-snogging-but-not-hero-worshipping, world-saving actresses in recent memory. (Listed in ascending order of awesomeness.) Who is the greatest of them all?
Technically, Sandra Bullock is no longer a popcorn actress of our generation; her reign of adrenaline-pumping roles peaked a decade ago with films like Demolition Man, The Net, and Speed (not to mention its subpar sequel, Speed 2: Cruise Control). But even though she's moved on in the '00s to specialize in comedy (Miss Congeniality, The Proposal) and Oscar bait (the current football hit The Blind Side), Bullock undoubtedly paved the way for a younger generation of popcorn actresses, proving that a little spunk, precision driving, and computer hacking skills can go a long way.
Although Oscar-nominated actress Naomi Watts seems more comfortable in the world of drama and independent film (her breakthrough came in David Lynch's art house hit Mulholland Drive), genre blockbusters mark important milestones in her career. The J-horror remake The Ring (2002) gave Watts the highest-grossing box office and the biggest role of her career at the time, which she followed with a number of acclaimed performances in smaller indie films like 21 Grams (which earned her an Academy Award nomination) and I Heart Huckabees. A few years later, she had a busy popcorn year, starring in the sequel The Ring Two and in Peter Jackson's King Kong, a CG-heavy epic adventure that cost $207 million to make and earned critical and commercial success. A few years and a couple more indie pics later, Watts starred in the globe-trotting conspiracy flick The International and if it ever comes to fruition, will star in the Michael Bay-produced remake of The Birds, a movie that has popcorn written all over it.
Liv Tyler went from being popcorn movie arm candy (Armageddon, in which she provides a landscape for animal crackers to dance across) to commanding a presence among a deep cast of manly men, hobbits, and wizards in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. After wielding a sword as the half-Elven hottie Arwen, Tyler was absent from genre movies until the summer of 2008, when she opened the sleeper slasher hit The Strangers and Louis Letterier's remake of The Incredible Hulk in the span of a few weeks.
No list of popcorn movie femmes would be complete without mention of this former model, who got plenty of pretty girl roles (Dazed and Confused, Return to the Blue Lagoon) before landing her star-making turn in Luc Besson's The Fifth Element. A few years later, Jovovich was cast as an amnesiac who must fight her way out of an underground compound with zombies on the loose. Three sequels later (the last of which, Resident Evil: Afterlife, is scheduled for release in 2010), Jovovich has become a preeminent action heroine, also wielding serious gun-fu skills in Ultraviolet and appearing in David Twohy's exotic horror-thriller The Perfect Getaway.
Our title goes to Kate Beckinsale, an English actress who's gone from corsets to black leather cat suits on her way to becoming this generation's greatest popcorn film actress. It began back in 2001, when Beckinsale co-starred in the historical action epic Pearl Harbor as a woman torn between BFF hotties Ben Affleck and Josh Hartnett. Grossing over $449 million worldwide, Pearl Harbor became Beckinsale's biggest film and, a few years later, she beat out Halle Berry and Milla Jovovich for the lead role in a movie about vampires battling werewolves in a modern-day setting called Underworld. She returned to gothic themes in 2004 to fight monsters opposite Hugh Jackman in the horror adventure Van Helsing, and then stoked her fan following by reprising her role as the hot gun-toting vampire in Underworld: Evolution.
Next, Beckinsale appeared in the summer comedy hit Click opposite Adam Sandler, opened the sleeper hit Vacancy with Luke Wilson, and traded her black leather for a parka to hunt a serial killer in the comic book adaptation Whiteout. While that film was a surprise failure at the box office (and the first major Beckinsale vehicle of the decade to lose money), there is hope yet for the actress to maintain her presence in popcorn flicks; a fourth Underworld project is underway! As long as Beckinsale remembers the secret of her success -- namely, that killer combination of sexy black leather and genre action -- she might become a popcorn film actress for a new generation yet.
Now You Decide...
Jen Yamato writes weekly for Film.com.