This weekend I watched Total Recall for the first time, and while it’s not my most favorite action movie, it features what I’m going to call The Headly Surprise. Remember that review of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels I wrote a while back? (If not, go read and enjoy.) The happy surprise in that movie was that a pretty woman (Glenne Headly) deceived the male leads and was not punished for it, but rather was celebrated. It’s so rare to see that happen in mainstream culture, including Hollywood movies. So rare, in fact, that I think we should point it out when it happens and jump up and down a little with excitement.
And so I bring you a sporadic feature, The Headly Surprise. Whenever I see a movie that features a woman not punished by the film for something women usually get punished for, I’ll mention it here. This doesn’t necessarily mean a physical punishment, but can include the way the woman is talked about or the way the movie frames her. A Headly Surprise movie may include: a woman is smart but isn’t labeled uppity, a bitch, or cold-hearted; a woman is not white but survives the end of the film (if it’s an action film) or isn’t the sassy best friend (if it’s a comedy with a white protagonist); a woman is pretty but there are no nude shots or lingering shots of her body; a woman is fat but her desire for sex isn’t laughed at; a woman has no desire to have sex with men and isn’t derisively called a lesbian or a bitch; a woman saves her own damn self from the villain; etc. The Headly Surprise is usually a movie showing love for, instead of fear of, a badass woman.
Which brings us to today’s entry in the canon of The Headly Surprise: Rachel Ticotin as Melina in Total Recall. The basic plot of the movie (which is loosely based on a Philip K. Dick story I haven’t read called “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale”) is thus: After a bad trip to the implanted-memory doctor, Arnold Schwarzenegger (Quaid) realizes that he is not the married construction worker he thinks he is, but instead is some type of government agent whose memory was erased because he knew too much. He travels to Mars, where he first learned the dangerous information that he can now no longer remember, and sorts out the twists and turns of who he is and who he’s fighting as he meets up with a former flame (Ticotin) and journeys into the underground world of a planet so corrupt that its rulers sell air.
It is not necessary to tell you how it ends to tell you that Melina is awesome. First, Quaid starts out “married” to Lori (Sharon Stone), who is, as we all know, a gorgeous blond, but even brain surgery can’t make him forget the woman he truly loves — Melina, who is a gorgeous woman of color. Unexpected Hollywood Moment #1, right there. #2 arrives when we are introduced to Melina in the shitty bar/brothel she works at. We see right away that Melina is a prostitute, but we don’t get lingering shots of her body or even revealing clothing. We also don’t see any condemnation that she works as a prostitute; that’s just her job and there’s nothing titillating or sad or morally wrong with it, according to the film. Love it.
But my favorite Unexpected Hollywood Moment is #3, when Quaid is dragged to an elevator by Lori and some thugs to be delivered to the big boss for even more of an ass-kicking. The elevator door opens and BAM! It’s Melina, and she came prepared. She mows down all the thugs without missing a beat, then gets into a mighty brawl with Lori. Unexpected Hollywood Moment #4 — this ain’t no catfight. There is no hair pulling, nail scratching, or (always a favorite) accidental-ripping-of-clothing-in-curvaceous-places. These women are fighting to the death, and it shows; there’s punching, kicking, and general ass-kicking by both.
Not only does Melina save Quaid’s life at the elevator, [MILD SPOILER] she also saves his life at the very end of the film, when he’s face to face with the bad guy. This time Quaid is about to be killed, and Melina shows up armed and ready, and BAM! takes out the bad guy. Love it! Now teeeechnically Quaid still saves the day just after that, by pushing an all-important button, so technically the man still saves the world, but it is still a big deal for the woman to save the man from the villain instead of the other way around.
The best part is that it’s an ambiguous ending — did this movie really happen or is it another false memory or fantasy of Quaid’s? — because if it is Quaid’s fantasy, then it is his fantasy that a kickass woman kicks ass and saves his! Fantastic.
I don’t know how many of these elements of the film were drawn from the Dick story, how many were the ideas of the three writers credited with the screenplay, and how many were director Paul Verhoeven’s, but kudos to Verhoeven for producing a Hollywood blockbuster with a Headly Surprise.
Do you have any Headly Surprise suggestions?