“Someone once said to me, ‘What’s great about you is you’re a woman and you can do action,’” Lexi Alexander told Wired in 2017. “And part of me is thinking, ‘Fuck, yeah! Keep thinking that!’ Meanwhile, the other part is thinking, ‘Fuck this sexist shit.’”
In the world of cinema, Lexi Alexander is a rarity: while female directors are sadly rare, female action directors are ever rarer. And while her big screen list of credits might be small, Alexander has shown a fascinating facility for orchestrating cinematic chaos, probably because she’s experienced it herself at close quarters. Born in Germany, to a Palestinian father and German mother, Alexander is a former World Kickboxing Champion and USMC close-quarter-combat instructor. Her entrée into filmmaking was sponsored by no less a figure than martial arts icon Chuck Norris, who witnessed Alexander in the octagon in Europe, and suggested that she head to the US to scope out the acting scene. “There’s no career in martial arts really, so I had all these people saying to me ‘Lexi, you could be the female Jean Claude Van Damme,’” she told Graffiti With Punctuation. “In the early nineties, you had all these famous martial artists making B movies. Chuck sponsored my green card and sent me to a very specific acting school, which I really enjoyed, but I just didn’t want to act.”
Instead of acting, Alexander moved briefly into the film world as a stuntwoman before finally making her directorial debut in 2002 with the short film Johnny Flynton. Starring Dash Mihok (The Thin Red Line) in the title role, the searing 37-minute drama tracks a none-too-bright boxer unable to triumph over his inner turmoil and raging bad temper. “It’s a short, but Johnny Flynton has all of the intense emotional ups and downs of a masterfully constructed feature film,” enthused Film Threat. “Fuck Rocky, this is the best film about a boxer that I’ve ever seen.” Entirely financed at $35,000 by Alexander herself with a year’s income from coaching martial arts, Johnny Flynton was nominated for Best Live Action Short Film at The 75th Academy Awards.
Despite the obvious heat that an Oscar brings, it took Alexander three years to make her feature debut (“I pushed for any film that had a boxer in it following Johnny Flynton, but I was told no because of my gender many times”) in 2005 with Green Street Hooligans. In this British-set drama-thriller about the morally blackened world of soccer hooliganism, Elijah Wood is Matt Buckner, a timid Harvard student who takes the fall when his upper crust roommate is busted for drug possession. Adrift and dispossessed, Matt takes off for London to visit his sister (Claire Forlani), who has a young child with her British husband, Steve (Marc Warren). Alone and easily led, Matt is taken under the wing of Steve’s brother Pete (Charlie Hunnam), a wild boy who fronts his own “firm” of soccer hooligans. Turned on by the violence and camaraderie, Matt is soon gargling lager and kicking heads with the best of them. Strongly performed and sharply paced, Green Street Hooligans is a grimly entertaining look at a dark subculture, and served as the perfect debut for Alexander with its mix of gritty interpersonal politics and skin-splitting violence.
It took another three years for Alexander to get behind the camera again, but she did it with an absolute vengeance with 2008’s Marvel adaptation, Punisher: War Zone. “When I was nominated for an Oscar and seated next to Martin Scorsese, there was nothing in my mind that made me think, ‘Hey, in three years maybe I’ll make another remake of Punisher,’” Alexander told Wired in 2017. After a couple of dud movie runs at the character (1989’s Dolph Lundgren starrer The Punisher, and the dreadful 2004 version starring Thomas Jane), however, Alexander’s Punisher: War Zone got it psychotically, deliriously right. The Punisher is Frank Castle (played with monstrous power by hulking Brit Ray Stevenson), a war veteran turned vigilante after his family is killed by The Mob. Alexander’s economic slice of inspired mayhem hit the tone of the comic book with spare, stark brutality, with the director going fearlessly hardcore with the film’s violence. “It’s freaky, dark and violent, and as Punisher fans know, there’s really no boundaries to his darkness,” Alexander told IGN. “I really tried to go there and hopefully I’ve achieved it.”
Despite its pitch-black brilliance, Punisher: War Zone was lambasted by critics, and proved too nasty to move beyond its comic book loving target audience. It should have sent Lexi Alexander hurtling into the action director stratosphere, but the film’s poor box office did little to bolster what should have been an ascendant career. Alexander’s last film remains 2010’s little seen Lifted, which saw the director making a surprising left turn into family territory with the story of thirteen-year-old soldier’s son, Henry Matthews (Uriah Shelton), who takes part in a local singing contest when his father (Johnny Flynton’s Dash Mihok) is shipped off to Afghanistan. With Lifted making little to no impact, Lexi Alexander has been working in episodic television ever since, helming installments of Arrow, Supergirl, Limitless, American Gothic, Taken, How To Get Away With Murder, S.W.A.T and LA’s Finest.
Lexi Alexander should be a major action director right now, with gigs at big studios, or punching out superhero flicks for Marvel and DC. Her knack for fight scenes is bar none, and her ability to mix bone-jacking action with intense character beats is keenly and impressively honed. Alexander has, however, been making her mark in equally – if not more – significant fashion by boldly voicing via social media her opinions on the current state of Hollywood, and particularly the gender disparity that cleaves it in two. The director’s Twitter handle (@Lexialex) is now synonymous with strikingly on-the-money statements, questions and observations about how tough the game really is for female filmmakers in Hollywood. Alexander calls the industry out with an admirable lack of compromise on a regular basis, and maybe that’s why she has had so much trouble booking films. Tough, honest and unafraid, Lexi Alexander is now playing a vital part in changing the film industry’s often prehistoric and gender-based brand of thinking when it comes to who can and who can’t make movies.
“There is no lack of female directors,” Alexander wrote on her personal blog. “But there is a huge lack of people willing to give female directors opportunities. I swear, if anyone near me even so much as whispers the sentence, ‘Women probably don’t want to direct,’ my fist will fly as a reflex action. By letter of the law, all female directors must fall in one of two categories: Difficult or Indecisive. Bitch or Ditz. Hello, my name is Lexi Alexander, Difficult Bitch. Nice to meet you!”
For more on Lexi Alexander, head to her official website. If you liked this story, check out our features on other unsung auteurs Alkinos Tsilimidos, Stewart Raffill, Lamont Johnson, Maggie Greenwald and Tamara Jenkins.