It’s no secret that Hollywood is sexist. Wonder Woman took forever to get to the big screen, Black Widow still doesn’t have her own solo film, and the girls always get the short end of the stick when it comes to action figures. It seems that, despite the rapidly progressing times, it’s difficult for studio executives to see women as anything other than damsels-in-distress or supportive side-kicks.
Screw that noise! Anytime some moron tries to suggest that women can’t kick as much butt as their chromosomal counterparts, just point them to any of these films, our list of 15 Awesome Female-Led Action Movies!
Gina Carano is a badass. In movies like Fast & Furious 6 and Deadpool, she plays a tough-as-nails woman of few words, evoking mid-60s Clint Eastwood. Her breakthrough performance was as a black ops agent on the run in Steven Soderbergh’s Haywire. Soderbergh aimed to cut through all of the superfluous bells and whistles of the spy-on-the-run film, distilling the genre to its bare essence, and Carano, a relative unknown with serious MMA chops, was the perfect choice to star.
She is single-mindedly focused on survival and revenge, and her fight scenes in this film (against the likes of Channing Tatum and Michael Fassbender) are the stuff of legend. She does all of her own stunts, and with Soderbergh himself personally responsible for the shooting and editing, they turn a pretty run of the mill piece of spy fiction into a gorgeous tapestry of violence and engagingly fast-paced storytelling.
14. Resident Evil
The Resident Evil series of films is equally loved and loathed by action fans and hardcore devotees of the legendary videogames, who hate the films for misrepresenting the characters of the source material and for influencing the more action-oriented direction the games have taken lately. One thing the films inherited from the games, though, is its focus on female leads.
Resident Evil games gave us Jill Valentine, Claire Redfield, Rebecca Chambers, and other badass ladies (yes, they also gave us RE4’s Ashley Graham, but that’s not important right now!), and the film series stars Milla Jovovich as Alice, a scientific researcher who becomes a supersoldier and fights against zombies, monsters, and other science projects gone awry. The movies are pretty silly and not particularly intelligent, but they’re a lot of fun, like a soap opera; no matter how ridiculous it gets, we can’t help but want to see what happens next. The presumably final film, the aptly-titled Resident Evil: The Final Chapter, is currently scheduled for release in January 2017.
Did you know that there are four Underworld movies, with a fifth and sixth on the way? They may never end! As long as they keep on doing decent business, then Sony will keep on making them, which we don’t really mind, since, like Resident Evil, Underworld is a fun soap opera to follow, but with a much deeper and more involved mythology about a war between vampires and werewolves.
The lead here is Kate Beckinsale, the steely stoic armed with piercing blue eyes and dual pistols, among other weapons. Her relatively grounded nature stands in pleasant contrast to her hammy supporting cast, which includes Bill Nighy and Michael Sheen. Her presence was sorely missed in the prequel, Rise of the Lycans. While the lovely and talented Rhona Mitra picked up the slack, it wasn’t quite enough to make up for Beckinsale’s absence. The series may be a little too self-serious for some, but its mythology, impressive action, and gothic stylings keep us coming back for more.
12. Terminator 2: Judgment Day
When we first met Sarah Connor, she was a shy waitress targeted for assassination by a robot from the future. Fortunately, she was saved by the love of her life, who traveled through time to sacrifice himself for her. When we eventually caught up with Ms. Connor in Terminator 2: Judgment Day, she had changed.
Despite being ultimately confined to a mental institution, she had trained her body and her mind for the inevitable return of the machines, and, with some help from a friendly Terminator, she saved the world and prevented Armageddon… Until the next sequel, at least. Linda Hamilton was excellent in Terminator and its sequel, going from a “scream queen” damsel to a full-on warrior goddess who needs a killer robot to remind her what it means to be human. Also, her impressively toned arms have inspired generations of workout enthusiasts.
11. Sucker Punch
Love it or hate it, Sucker Punch is basically “Girls Kicking Ass: The Movie.” With guns, swords, hatchets, and mech suits, the women in Zack Snyder’s polarizing, introspective epic all unequivocally qualify as being serious action stars, at least in their own minds. Within the multiple layers of fantasy beyond reality, Babydoll, Sweet Pea, and the rest destroy steampunk armies, goblin hordes, and robotic security forces to symbolize the steps of escaping their captivity, which itself is symbolic for an entirely difficult form of captivity.
It’s pretty dense (though somewhat easier to follow in the superior Director’s Cut), and maybe too esoteric for some viewers, but the music video action sequences are nothing short of incredible, the drama is palpable, and the fantasy is relatable and believable. Any way you cut it, Sucker Punch is an action movie unlike any other.
10. Death Proof
Quentin Tarantino may be an indecipherable weirdo with a foot fetish, but the man makes good movies. By his own admission, Death Proof is his weakest effort, and it’s still pretty awesome. Kurt Russell plays Stuntman Mike, a serial killer whose weapon of choice is his “death proof” car. Eventually, his would-be victims fight back, and Stuntman Mike finds himself in a full-on car chase to the death against a group of women who turn out to be stuntwomen themselves. They’re not exactly heroes, and they make some questionable choices throughout the film, like leaving the sweet and naive Lee with the creepy redneck Jasper, but when they’re facing off against an evil serial killer, we can still feel safe rooting for them to persevere.
Zoe Bell, in particular, attained a degree of fame following her terrific performance in this film. Death Proof is the second half of Tarantino’s high-concept collaboration with Robert Rodriguez, the financially unsuccessful Grindhouse. Both films are available separately in extended Director’s Cuts, but we prefer the original double-feature presentation.
9. Mad Max: Fury Road
Alongside Rey from Star Wars and that adorable kid from Room, Furiosa was one of 2015’s top breakout characters. In Mad Max: Fury Road, the title character plays support to the true heroine of the story, Furiosa. She is a truly progressive feminist action hero, out to save sex slave “wives” from a seriously despicable patriarch, the evil Immortan Joe, and restore freedom to her people. What ensues is one of the most incredible car chases ever seen, which essentially lasts for the entire duration of the film.
The story is told by the action, not the dialogue, and the messages aren’t slammed down your throat like a patronizing teacher, but are instead matter-of-factly laid out for the viewer to acknowledge and respect. Mad Max: Fury Road won six Academy Awards and was the best-reviewed film of the year. If you haven’t seen it yet, what the heck are you waiting for?
8. La Femme Nikita
1990’s La Femme Nikita was French filmmaker Luc Besson’s first big international hit, and is still his most enduring classic, having been remade three times; first as a Hollywood film, Point of No Return, starring Bridget Fonda, and as two distinct television series, with Peta Wilson and Maggie Q putting their own spin on the endearing character, a cop-killing criminal who is spared the death penalty in exchange for become a secret agent.
While the original film does have its fair share of notable shootouts and chases, it’s decidedly more of a drama than the more action-oriented television versions of the story. Lead actress Anne Parillaud has a much more feminine softness than the sturdy Maggie Q, and, despite her character’s violent past and rigorous training regimen, retains much more humanity than one would expect from a cold-blooded assassin. It’s a taut thriller with a human heart at its center, which makes the core story ripe for retelling.
7. The Hunger Games
We all know the story of Katniss Everdeen, the unlikely symbol of revolution, as told in The Hunger Games series of films. While the final film had the lowest box office returns of the series (it was still incredibly successful), the series is still beloved for being a YA adaptation done right, and is adored by teens and adults alike as being vastly more intelligent than its closest counterpart, the much maligned Twilight Saga. Sure, it’s bogged down with a tedious romantic subplot, and three books worth of story were needlessly stretched into four movies, but there’s still a lot of heart here, along with a fully-realized world.
Fun Fact: Steven Soderbergh served as Second Unit Director on the first film, probably to make sure that the core concept of the “games,” kids murdering each other in a PG-13 setting, couldn’t be watered-down to the point of being inoffensive and benign. He made sure we felt their pain, and, indeed, most fans would agree that the first film is the most violent in the series.
6. Lara Croft: Tomb Raider
The first truly successful videogame-to-movie adaptation, and still the one with the highest domestic box office by a wide margin, 2001’s Lara Croft: Tomb Raider is not only a competent action film, but it’s also the movie which secured Angelina Jolie’s spot on the A-list. Lara Croft is Indiana Jones with the suave gravitas of James Bond, and Angie nailed the role, perfectly capturing the essence of that era of the character.
A sequel was produced, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life (too many colons), which bombed hard at the box office, putting a swift end to the series. However, there has recently been talk of Daisy Ridley taking up the role in a proposed reboot based on the more recent games, which feature a younger, more vulnerable Lara Croft. Should this come to fruition, we think Ridley would be an inspired choice to reboot the franchise.
5. Kill Bill
In Quentin Tarantino’s tribute to 1970s kung fu cinema, Uma Thurman plays The Bride, a scorned woman out for revenge. She aims to take down Bill and anyone who stands with him. Cue massive brawls with Daryl Hannah, Vivica A. Fox, and Lucy Liu, as well as the epic and bloody battle with the entire Crazy 88 Gang, which results in numerous severed limbs and endless buckets of blood.
The Bride is a battle-hardened assassin, and her timeless tale of vengeance in Tarantino’s most action-packed film is fun for the whole family, especially if your family loves blood, guts, grand storytelling, and empowered women who take what they want without asking for permission, pursuing their goals with a righteous determination. The Bride may somewhat of an unexpected role model for girls, but perhaps her proclivity towards family-unfriendly violence is part of her enduring appeal. She gives as good as she gets, and never lets her femininity get in the way of her quest for revenge.
4. The Long Kiss Goodnight
The Long Kiss Goodnight is a cross between the amnesiac plot of The Bourne Identity and the boundless adventure of the James Bond series, only with the genders of the hero and his “Bond girl” reversed.
Geena Davis stars as the assassin with no memory, and Samuel L. Jackson is the relatively useless but wholly entertaining sidekick. The Long Kiss Goodnight was written by Shane Black (Lethal Weapon, Iron Man 3), so you just know that the dialogue is peppy and memorably clever, and it was directed by underrated action veteran Renny Harlin (5 Days of War, Die Hard 2), but the film failed to really break out at the box office, and was met with surprisingly mixed reviews. Since its original 1996 release, however, the film has developed an impressive cult following, due to the chemistry between Davis and Jackson, as well as the inventive action sequences and entertaining blend of comedy and drama.
3. Foxy Brown
1973’s Coffy raised eyebrows with its depiction of a physically strong and mentally determined black female lead, played by Pam Grier. 1974’s Foxy Brown turned up the style and turned Grier into a blaxploitation icon. As a righteous and streetwise independent woman out for revenge, Grier uses her unparalleled sexuality to get close to her enemies and catch them off-guard before taking them out in brutal and exotic ways, which, despite the low-budget trappings of the era, are still major crowd-pleasers to this day.
This film, as well as its spiritual predecessor, are favorites of Quentin Tarantino, who cast Pam Grier as the lead character in one of his own films, Jackie Brown, which pays homage to her 1970s heyday and is practically a love letter to the woman herself, while also being a faithful and entertaining adaptation of the Elmore Leonard novel, Rum Punch.
2. Charlie’s Angels
“Good Morning Angels!” The Aaron Spelling “girls as private detectives” show got a 21st century update in director McG’s film version of Charlie’s Angels and its sequel. The first film is a fun romp, but the second, Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle, kicks every aspect of the film into overdrive, with ample helpings of spontaneous dance numbers, legendarily hammy acting, a whole warehouse worth of costume changes for our leads, and ludicrously implausible fight scenes straight out of The Matrix or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
It’s unadulterated joy in its purest form. Every minute of Full Throttle is a gloriously guilty pleasure, from Demi Moore in a bikini on the beach, to Demi Moore in lingerie and fur, to Demi Moore in a wingsuit like a flying squirrel over the streets of Los Angeles. That last one isn’t a joke, it’s just how awesomely ridiculous the movie becomes.
“Get away from her, you bitch!”
There was never any doubt what movie deserved the ultimate spot on this list. Much like how Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor goes from a survivor to an action hero, so to does Sigourney Weaver in the transition from Alien to Aliens. Only this time, her righteous actions come from a much more personal and feminine place than Connor’s “save the world” approach; after spending much of the film being protected by the Colonial Marines, Ellen Ripley decides to take matters into her own hands when her surrogate daughter, Newt, is captured by monsters. She arms herself to the teeth and embarks on a mission to take her back.
Alien has always been a commentary on gender roles and the inherent fear of sexual violence (just look at the design of the titular creature and lose count of how many aspects are evocative of both male and female genitals), but Aliens turns away from the fear of male aggression, and into a celebration of maternal strength, with Ripley’s rampage being familiar to every parent who was ever forced to stand up for their child… As well as anyone who ever had to fight a giant monster with heavy machinery, though that audience is decidedly more niche.
What other badass female-led action movies can you think of? And remember, she has to be the lead character. Otherwise, Kick-Ass and Wanted would absolutely be on this list. Sound off in the comments below!