Kate Beckinsale is one of those performers that is quite good in everything they appear in though what films they appear in tend to be mediocre. Throughout her entire career Kate Beckinsale has gone from giving great performances in amazing movies (The Last Days Of Disco and Love & Friendship) to giving great performances in bad movies. Beckinsale has balanced her career with art films and mainstream genre work. Fans of Beckinsale have sat through dozens of lackluster movies but have never had to witness a bad performance from their favorite matinee idol.
So it should come as no surprise that it is Beckinsale’s performance that elevates Jolt (2021). Jolt cashes-in on Beckinsale’s action hero brand that the actress cultivated in the Underworld movies and casts her into a John Wick (2014) inspired actioner. Beckinsale (and her stunt double) kick asses, electrocute testicles, exsanguinate, bomb, and toss babies while on a misguided quest for vengeance. The action spectacle roars across the screen but is never as compelling as the comic banter between Beckinsale and Stanley Tucci nor the vulnerable exchanges between Beckinsale and Jai Courtney. Beckinsale thrives in scenes where she can mine the complexities and nuances of her character, even when she’s playing a woman with a comic book version of intermittent explosive disorder being illegally handled by the CIA.
This is the fundamental difference between a John Wick movie and Jolt. John Wick is a film of physicality, of movement, that imagines violence as a dance while Jolt puts a human being into a genre picture that trades in tried archetypes in order to allegorically comment upon the roles of women in such films and in society. John Wick is a film devoid of human characters, Jolt is a film about a human character in a comic book world. John Wick is the visually superior film but Jolt is the more affecting though both are entirely reliant upon the narrative formulas of a first-person shooter game.
Jolt is the first action film by director Tanya Wexler who rose to prominence with the film Hysteria (2011). The broad feminist messaging of Wexler’s films continues in Jolt by turning the protagonist’s mental illness into a Lucy (2014) inspired super power. Throughout the entirety of Jolt Beckinsale’s character Lindy is struggling to maintain her agency and command her physical autonomy whilst navigating the traditionally misogynist and masculinist spaces of the American action movie. Wexler, working in an idiom of operatic proportions accustomed to chest thumping and back slapping opts to do away with political sobtext and lays her feminist commentary across the surface of the film, imbuing every scene with this sense of urgency. The masturbation in Hysteria has become the vendetta of Jolt.
Unfortunately for Wexler and Jolt most American audiences do not perceive the action movie as a space for feminist texts and badass women characters like Beckinsale. Reviews criticize the dialogue and the plotting as being “brainless” or “predictable” but that just feels like an excuse. Jolt is no more brainless or artful than John Wick or Lucy, it’s just a film made by a woman about a woman that has something to say about women. There’s a subconscious or covert misogyny inherent to the scathing reviews of Jolt that must be reckoned with. To critique the cinematographic aesthetics of Jolt (which are in fact pretty standard and un incredible) without addressing Wexler’s feminist messaging in the film is not only an act of discrimination but a total disregard for the profession of film criticism.
That isn’t to say that Wexler’s feminism in Jolt makes the film good, it simply makes the film more unique and more interesting. Jolt is very clearly a reaction to the hyper-masculinity of the John Wick movies so its feminist values are essential. If Jolt merely re-created John Wick with a woman in the lead this would be a different matter, but Wexler has chosen to enter into a direct discourse with the John Wick films with regards to gender and gender roles. Just by casting Beckinsale one could argue that Wexler has challenged the affirmation of misogynist female archetypes in the John Wick movies.