One of the planet’s toughest action heroes takes a seat in the leafy, genteel courtyard cafe of the Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills. Another action figure, Sylvester Stallone, sitting two tables away having lunch with Paramount Pictures president Sherry Lansing, doesn’t even look twice.
Not that you can blame him.
Michelle Yeoh, at 5 foot 4 with long, silky black hair and a smile the size of Miami, doesn’t exactly look the type to bandy magnums, bullwhips, and double swords. Yet this 35-year-old actress is the queen of the Hong Kong action-movie scene. On these shores, she’s the latest beautiful young woman to call herself a Bond girl.
”I kick and punch quite hard, and it surprises people,” says Yeoh (also billed as Michelle Khan), whom U.S. audiences saw match Jackie Chan stunt for neck-jangling stunt in last year’s Supercop. ”People don’t expect such things coming from little old me.”
Let’s consider that a warning. After more than a decade of drop-kicking and head-smashing her way into Hong Kong film lore with legendary foot-in-the-face flicks like Tai Chi Master and Yes, Madam!, Yeoh is ready to take on the world.
And she’s starting with 007. ”When you think of the Bond girls, you think of these bimbos yelling, ‘Help, James! Save me, save me!’ ” says Yeoh, who costars with Pierce Brosnan in Tomorrow Never Dies, the 19th Bond installment. ”I could never relate to them. I always thought of myself as James Bond.”
Don’t look for an argument from Bond. Says Brosnan, ”Michelle can whup the butt of virtually every above-the-title movie star in Hollywood.” It certainly looks that way. As Wai Lin, a Chinese spy who meets up with the unstirred British agent, Yeoh shoots, kicks, and swims past the bad guys, completely reinventing the Bond-girl role. (While Goldeneye‘s Famke Janssen was billed as a feminist-friendly Bond babe, she licked her opponents not with martial arts but by crushing them between her perfect thighs.) ”This is the first time James Bond has an ally,” says Yeoh. ”Yes, there’s sexual tension between [Wai Lin and Bond], but we’re so busy being chased by helicopters and going underwater, we don’t have much time for sleeping together.”
”Michelle is really helping us modernize the Bond films,” says Tomorrow director Roger Spottiswoode. ”It was time to have a different kind of woman in these movies, someone beyond the stereotype. Michelle is completely on Bond’s level even in real life. She has enormous strength, yet she’s very feminine. And Michelle doesn’t spend her time seducing anyone.”
Actually, that’s a matter of opinion. Quentin Tarantino was so enthralled with Yeoh and her flying feet, he begged to come see her in a Hong Kong hospital in 1995 (she’d dislocated her neck after jumping off an 18-foot wall while filming Ah Kam) just so he could gush over her films. ”He sat at my feet, propped up on a pillow, talking about my movies frame by frame for hours,” Yeoh recalls.