In the past decade, Chloë Grace Moretz has created the only notable teenage action-film career in recent memory. Her wide-eyed, childlike face has been cast in consistently dark work, and her most memorable roles have involved stunt work, combat, and convincing the audience that she is a convincing threat to her adult co-stars. She was the runaway star of the Kick Ass films, put in gritty, nuanced work as the leads in Let Me In and Carrie, and later this month, she will star in 2016’s YA soft-sci-fi flick, The 5th Wave.
Who are the great teenage action stars of the last several decades, if not Moretz? Floppy-haired Edward Furlong was memorable as John Connor in T2, but he didn’t do enough stunt work to stand out among his older cast-mates. John Boyega, now famous for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, was once a running, fighting, screaming 19-year-old action star in Attack the Block, but the film wasn’t exactly a blockbuster. Another Edgar Wright project, Scott Pilgrim vs the World, featured several teenage actors engaged in hand-to-hand combat, though Scott Pilgrim wasn’t technically an “action” movie.
The now-forgotten stars of the Spy Kids franchise surprised audiences, at least in their first film, with likability, but neither of their action-star careers launched after the series came to a close. Shailene Woodley has been performing well in the disappointing Divergent series, but she’s in her early 20s. Jennifer Lawrence was also well past her teens during her turn in The Hunger Games series. Dylan O’Brien, the most memorable part of the Maze Runner films, is also in his early 20s.
Moretz, it seems, stands alone as the youngest, and most engaging, action star in contemporary film. What is it about her, exactly?
She’s reverted her type
As Hit Girl in Kick Ass, Moretz plays a child assassin trained by her father (Nicolas Cage) to dole out flurries of vicious blows and expletives at criminals. In some scenes, her brutality is played for laughs — in the clip above, Mortez calling the gangsters “cunts” in her tiny, pre-pubescent voice precedes a fight sequence which is set to an annoying, “na na na” soundtrack — but her turn as Hit Girl wouldn’t have worked without some semblance of truth in it.
Whereas Moretz could have had a career like her contemporary Abigail Breslin’s, dabbling in darker fare but mostly capitalizing on her round, cherubic cheeks, she found a comfort zone in Hit Girl. Her follow-up roles adhered to the same formula, portraying Moretz as a child suppressing her rage. In the 2010 remake, Let Me In, Moretz was only 13 years old. In the film’s crescendo, she decapitates several young boys offscreen. It’s a terrifying action only made believable by the way Moretz appears in the rest of the film: quivering with untapped anger, mostly silent with desperate, knowing eyes.
She can handle weapons
It seems simple, right? Think about how much money studios spend on training their actors and prop team to prepare and handle weaponry the correct way, only to have mistakes like the ones in Skyfall happen?
In 2011, Moretz played to her strengths again — her innocent face, her surprising depth — though it was in a film that made almost no money. Hick was essentially the story of Moretz’s character receiving a revolver as a birthday gift and enacting her anger on the world.
She’s consistently good, even in bad movies
Hick wasn’t great, but it was top-tier Moretz fare. Her character somehow knew the entire mirror speech from Taxi Driver and wore a homemade shirt that said “TAKE ME DRUNK, I’M HOME”, but she still looked sadly at her body in the mirror and danced around in frilly, rainbow underwear. The film attempted to take her seriously, though it kept her rooted in uncanny comedy. She wasn’t a tough girl in Hick, but instead a soft character who wanted very badly to have agency. The point, however, is that she looked like a natural with a gun.
In 2013’s misguided Carrie remake, Moretz played well again, though she wasn’t believable as a social outcast. Carrie was a misfire for Moretz, who had all the internal power to play the mad teenager with a bloodlust, but she was too classically pretty for the role Sissy Spacek had played to perfection in 1976. Where Spacek had been gaunt and unnerving, Moretz was what she always is: adorable.
She’s finally hit her stride
Later this month, Moretz will star in the first installment of a film series based on the 5th Wave YA novels by Rick Yancey. The books themselves are tedious, in part because the story’s female lead, Cassie, is emotionally impenetrable and repetitively sarcastic. Nothing gets under her skin, even during an apocalyptic alien invasion. It’s a role Moretz is fully prepared to improve and enhance, as she’s spent her career of an already respectable length bringing interesting subtext to underwritten roles.
If The 5th Wave starred any other actress, viewers might not enjoy one scene in the following trailer, in which Cassie picks up a disarming maneuver with no trouble or hesitation, unbelievable or hammy. Since we’ve all watched Moretz handle herself masterfully on screen in similar situations, we’re ready to laugh at Moretz’s co-star’s surprise.
He’s teaching combat moves to Hit Girl, after all.