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Actress Milla Jovovitch standing in a desert landscape Photo composition: James Bareham/Polygon

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Milla Jovovich is in the action movie pantheon now

The Monster Hunter star reflects on her journey as an underrated cinematic slayer

On a gravel plain stretching to infinity, Milla Jovovich’s Captain Natalie Artemis stands with her back to camera and a map in hand. As the sunrise washes over her, a frenzied voice calls for backup on the radio. When she turns around, an extreme close-up chisels in the details: a layer of dirt on the face; a pale, green-blue eye in profile. She bangs the hood of a patrol buggy, snapping her team of roughnecks back to their mission into unknown territory. “Alright, ladies, saddle up.” Her voice a low, husky growl that recalls the mumbling tough guys of ’80s action staples. “She’s a woman,” quips one of her foot soldiers, “but she still manages to make that sound like an insult.”

Monster Hunter, the latest blockbuster spectacle by Resident Evil and Mortal Kombat director, Paul W.S. Anderson, puts the so-called world’s least pretentious auteur behind the wheel of yet another game-to-movie adaptation, and supermodel-turned-action star, Jovovich, (Anderson’s wife and go-to leading lady) at the head of another ass-kicking trip down the rabbit hole. Based on Capcom’s popular Monster Hunter fantasy franchise, the power couple’s latest genre experiment is a gleefully preposterous joyride co-starring Tony Jaa and Hellboy himself, Ron Perlman. Complete with all the cheesy one-liners, tunnels, traps, and tumbling bodies that make up Anderson’s signature style, Monster Hunter will (as expected) irk the guardians of “good taste,” and enthrall those who embrace its lean, B-movie pleasures. Shot on location in South Africa and Namibia, it also brings to life the game’s large-scale weaponry, intricate costumes, and colossal creatures.

At the center of it all is Jovovich: an elemental force; a smirking, teeth-gnashing toughie; a presence that anchors the ludicrous wastelands and cavernous lairs of the Andersonian imaginary with a sense of grace and wonder.

“I always tell [Paul], ‘I don’t know what you see in me,” Jovovich tells Polygon. “He always wants to work with me.” According to the actress, Anderson, who’d been trying to develop Monster Hunter into a movie since 2009, wrote several versions of the script without a female lead. The most complete iteration, according to Jovovich, centered on a 14-year-old boy with more of a Harry Potter vibe. “So when he brought me this version and said, ‘I wrote this one for you and I think it’s the best one I’ve done,’ I was like, ‘Are you kidding me? We just closed Resident Evil. I’ve been fighting zombies for the last 15 years and now you want me to kill monsters?’” Tomatoes, tomahtoes. Zombies, monsters. Jovovich has battled creepy crawlies and mutant abominations for nearly half her life. Yet her latest role, if not her chef d’oeuvre, feels like a benchmark.

Milla Jovovich in Monster Hunter in a wifebeater holding a knife and being real dirty
Milla Jovovich in The Fifth Element wearing her white body suit and holding a gun
Actress Milla Jovoich holding a gun in Resident Evil 2
From top: Jovovich in Monster Hunter, The Fifth Element, and Resident Evil: Apocalypse
Photos: Screen Gems; Alamy Stock Photo

Jovovich’s big Hollywood breakthrough came at the age of 21, when she starred in future ex-husband Luc Besson’s 1997 film The Fifth Element. As Leeloo, a gun-toting humanoid with orange tresses and bondage-inspired outfits, Jovovich was a fitting heroine for the MTV generation, an embodiment of the era’s fascination with martial arts-meets-cyberpunk cool. A teenage supermodel with a rebellious streak, she was a ’90s “It” girl and a symbol of the era’s grunge and glamor. Milla commanded covers from Vogue to High Times, aiming her steely gaze at the camera with a joint in hand.

Pallid and brooding, Milla’s rockstar edge vibed with the gothic industrial hellscape of the first Resident Evil, a role she pursued because of how much fun she had on the set of The Fifth Element, “doing these extraordinary stunts [and] feeling like one of the characters in the sci-fi books that I had read my whole life.” In an asymmetrical red dress and combat boots, Jovovich’s Resident Evil protagonist, Alice, is drawn into a mission that involves descending into the Umbrella Corporation’s subterranean testing facility, The Hive. As her squad, including a fresh-faced Michelle Rodriguez, makes its way through the underground labyrinth, the undead and other mutant flesh-eaters emerge. A supercomputer intent on containing the spread of the “T-virus” tells our heroes that they’re all going to die.

“When I was a little girl I was always looking for magical doorways to go into and lose myself in,” Jovovich says. “For me, making movies like [Resident Evil or Monster Hunter] and playing these larger than life characters is all a continuation of my childhood.” Named after Alice of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Jovovich stumbles through The Hive in a wide-eyed daze. In her very first scene, she wakes up naked, sprawled out on the floor of a shower now knowing who she is, or what she’s doing in this empty mansion sprinkled with dubious proof of a past life. Her body “awakens” first; her instincts are primary. In a standoff with a pack of mutant dobermans, she flips panther-like off a wall and scissor-kicks one of the hounds mid-flight. Her dreamy stupor evolves into a feline intensity.

Jovovich hardly gets enough credit for the lithe physicality and cocksure attitude that makes her such a natural in the action genre, so it’s not much of a surprise that her dramatic powers are also overlooked, or misunderstood. With each installment of the Resident Evil series, Alice grows more in command of her power, body, and identity, despite the fact that corporate overlords constantly threaten to usurp that autonomy. Anderson, who wrote every script in the series, injects constant twists and turns to fuel the films’ breathless onslaught of action. Despite the absurdism of her reality, which could always end up being a simulation or a dream, Alice never gives up the fight. Particularly in moments of rest — her video diary recordings in Resident Evil: Afterlife, or her encounter with motherhood in Resident Evil: Retribution — the wear and trauma of her seemingly endless struggle comes across through Jovovich’s micro-expressions: The way her eyes flicker, the way her jaw tenses, feels like cracks in a necessarily stoic facade. There’s something blank and dissociated about Alice’s gaze that conveys repression; it’s the sort of style we’ve only come to appreciate more recently with actors like Kristen Stewart. In an action vehicle, the effect can go unnoticed, yet there’s something honest about such steely reserve in a world of infinitely ridiculous possibilities. More palpable, but less convincing, would be a protagonist breaking down or erupting Al Pacino-style each time the going gets rough.

Within the first 10 minutes of Monster Hunter, an enormous black sandstorm crackling with lightning appears in the distance. Suddenly, a chaotic whirlwind of electric blue descends upon Artemis and her troops, sending their vehicles plummeting off a cliff. When they wake up, they’re lost in the middle of the desert, and it’s not too long before Diablos — a sort of tusked dragon on steroids — bursts out from beneath the dunes and wreaks bloody mayhem. Stripped of her gear after a traumatic scuffle, Artemis emerges in cargo pants and a white, ribbed undershirt. It’s a standard military uniform, Jovovich confirms, yet the simple, survivalist outfit recalls some of Hollywood’s most iconic action heroines.

Milla Jovovich and Paul W.S. Anderson on the set of Monster Hunter
Photo: Screen Gems

“I remember growing up in the ’80s when there were really no female action heroes. Then I watched Aliens. I saw Sigourney Weaver going to space and kicking alien butt, and it felt good and inspiring to see a woman doing these things. I had the same feeling with Terminator and Linda Hamilton,” Jovovich recalls. Introduced from the get-go as this rugged veteran and leader of men, Artemis is already a respected badass whose underlings call her “chief” or “captain.”

In a way, this badge of authority speaks to her action star credentials. There’s Weaver, Hamilton, and now Jovovich laying claim to her place in the canon of female brawlers. The actress has come a long way since the quirky, kittenish sensuality of Leeloo in The Fifth Element — Artemis is her most grounded and butch character to date. Smug, yet chill and relaxed, one feels compelled to crack her open a cold one and relish in her dry, straight-faced delivery of ridiculous dialogue. On the battlefield, she’s a force of nature, snarling and fierce. She’s simply a warrior.

Over video chat, Anderson points out that, up until Monster Hunter, Jovovich had yet to play a “real flesh and blood woman” in one of his movies: “In The Three Muskateers, Milady de Winter is obviously a period character. Alice is a superhuman [who] doesn’t even know what her real story is.” Like Alice, however, the character of Artemis was created independently of the video game as an avatar for audiences unfamiliar with the Monster Hunter world. The difference here is that Jovovich looked to a real-life person for inspiration: “I’d always been fascinated with the military. I’ve got military [roots] on both my mom and my dad’s sides of the family. But this time, I actually became friends with a female Army Ranger, which was extraordinary because they’ve only recently opened that branch of the military to women.”

Milla Jovovich with her Monster Hunter costar Tony Jaa looking at camera while the sun sets
Jovovich with her Monster Hunter costar Tony Jaa
Photo: Screen Gems

The friend in question is Captain Natalie Mallue, Artemis’s namesake, and the film’s military advisor tasked with training and vetting the cast. In one memorable scene, Artemis escapes from a bug-infested cave straight out of the Starship Troopers playbook, and tends to a gash on her leg by cauterizing her wound with flames sparked by gunpowder. “Paul thought of that one,” Jovovich laughs. “I had filmed the playback onto my iPhone and sent it to [Captain Mallue] because I wanted her to approve of my reaction. She sent it back, and was like, ‘No. You’re too high-pitched. There’s no way I would ever sound like that. Come on. Don’t be a pussy.’” Accordingly, Jovovich reshot the scene.

Beyond the massive monsters and flirtatious human-sized cat chefs (a Meowscular Chef, to be precise), one of Monster Hunter’s main attractions is watching Jovovich go head-to-head with Tony Jaa, the Thai martial artist and star of The Protector and Ong-Bak trilogy. Jaa’s Hunter, who wields a bone hatchet and a sword practically the actor’s height in length, doesn’t have much dialogue — he speaks an entirely different language. The communication barrier that Hunter and Artemis eventually overcome underscores the film’s broad themes of intercultural cooperation for the greater good (though the recent controversy in China over a racist joke casts a shade of irony over these intentions). In any case, the slim dialogue allows the audience to focus on what really matters in this, and any, Paul W.S. Anderson movie: the action and our two leads’ physical rapport.

Milla Jovovich with back to camera walks through the desert with her Monster Hunter blades dangling on her back
Jovovich with her blades
Photo: Screen Gems

Monster Hunter ultimately plays like an extended back and forth between Artemis and Hunter; when they’re not fighting, they’re one-upping each other, or saving each other from the clutches of monolithic beasts. Behind-the-scenes, Jovovich was humbled by the master stuntman: “I wasn’t even going to try and compete with [Jaa]. I need wires to do all of the flourishing kicks and spinning butterfly moves that he does in real life. During the early stunts rehearsals they were having me do martial arts stuff. But after a couple of days, I said, ‘Listen you guys. This just doesn’t feel right for my character because that’s not what they’re learning in the US military. I would be trying to catch Tony’s character and pull him out of the air, get him down on the ground. Close contact kind of fighting. Let my character shine through, and let her fighting style stand on its own.’”

“[Milla] really is the real deal action hero,” Monster Hunter prop master Kerry von Lillienfeld says over email. Tasked with recreating the armor and weapons to look exactly like those from the game, von Lillienfeld, who also worked on the final Resident Evil movie, recalls casting Artemis’ dual blades and giving them to Jovovich to take home for training purposes. “She picked them up and immediately started spinning them. She told me she had been practicing the moves while picking up sticks while she walked her dogs with Paul.” Anderson, too, noted his wife’s particularly intense commitment to the role, namely her 3 a.m. workout sessions each day on set. “She said, ‘If I’m going to play a military character, I need to deserve that.’”

The work doesn’t seem terribly glamorous, though based on the actress’s cheery demeanor over the phone, and her goofball energy in past interviews and Resident Evil audio commentary tracks, one suspects she considers it playtime. “For her full Monster Hunter wardrobe, we had to strap and bolt about 10 pieces to her, which she would have to wear the entire shoot day in some of the harshest locations I have ever been in,” von Lillienfeld says. “One day in the Tankwa [National Park in South Africa], the temperature passed 50 C, or 122 F. And never did she once moan. [She did it] with a smile on her face.”

Asked how things have changed for her as an actress in the nearly 20 years between the beginning of the Resident Evil series and Monster Hunter, Jovovich sighs. “My goodness, everything changes when you become a parent,” she explains, referring to her three daughters with Anderson, the youngest of which was born this past February. “I don’t know how much making action movies has changed for me. My professional life hasn’t changed in any way. It’s always been fun for me to make movies like this.” Might that have to do with her partner-in-crime? “You know, he loves me a lot and I inspire him. How can I say no to that?”

Monster Hunter hits theaters on Dec. 18.