While there aren't as many action movies with strong female characters in the lead, recent years have seen an increase in both quality and quantity of strong female action stars. With movies like Widows getting Oscar consideration and superheroes like Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel proving they don't just hang with their male counterparts, but exceed them in many ways, the era of strong female-centric action movies is getting stronger.
However, strong female action heroes are not a new thing. This dates back to the '70s and exploitation films and continued on - especially in Asian action movies where there were some amazingly strong women leading the way. With women kicking butt more than ever before, here is a look at the 10 best female action stars ever.
10 JENNIFER GARNER
Jennifer Garner is best known now for her romantic comedy and drama roles. However, there was a time where she was easily one of the best female action stars in both movies and on television. It all started with her breakout on television in J.J. Abrams Alias.
Starring as CIA officer Sydney Bristow, Garner joined Jessica Alba (Dark Angel) and Sarah Michelle Gellar (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) as the new breed of female butt kickers. She was so good that she got a chance to show her stuff for Marvel as well, with roles in Daredevil and Elektra.
9 MILLA JOVOVICH
Milla Jovovich has made a career out of playing tough-as-nails action heroes. While she worked as a young actress in Hollywood, she took a break from acting for a few years before returning in The Fifth Element, and while Bruce Willis was the hero of that movie, she showed her skills in some great fight scenes as well.
In 2002, Jovovich's career changed when she took the role as Alice in Resident Evil. While she got some chances to show her stuff in that horror movie, the sequels veered more towards apocalyptic action and she led the way as one of the most recognizable female action stars in the world for years. In 2019, she takes on the villain role in Hellboy.
8 ANGELINA JOLIE
For years, whenever someone pointed out that there were no female action stars, someone would bring up Angelina Jolie. They had a good point, but the problem is that Jolie was getting all the big action hero roles since she was the only star big enough to sell a movie, as far as studios were concerned.
Through the years, she starred in two Tomb Raider movies, which were honestly more of a superhero movie than actual comic book movies like Elektra and Catwoman. Add in an espionage movie in Salt, her own comic book movie opportunity in Wanted, and a movie where she got to try to kill Brad Pitt in Mr. & Mrs. Smith, and Jolie has appeared as the lead in more action movies than almost any other female star.
7 ZHANG ZIYI
Zhang Ziyi captured the attention of Americans everywhere when she co-starred in the Ang Lee directed wushu movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. That movie was a huge box office success and even picked up Oscar nominations, which made Ziyi a star.
Thanks to that film, although her performance was more choreographed than most action sequences, Ziyi became the go-to woman for Asian action movies made for American audiences. Over the next few years, she added Rush Hour 2, Hero and House of Flying Daggers to her resume and clinched her spot as one of cinema's best female action stars.
6 KATE BECKINSALE
Kate Beckinsale sits with Milla Jovovich as one of the go-to names for top female action stars of the past 20 years. Her spot here is for almost the exact same reason as Jovovich's. While Jovovich married Paul W.S. Anderson and starred in his Resident Evil movies, Beckinsale was married to Len Wiseman and was part of his Underworld franchise.
Beckinsale starred as Selene in every movie in the Underworld series, a vampire who gains powers even superior to others of her species as she fights against both werewolves and her own kind for survival. She also added a number of secondary action roles to her resume as well, including Van Helsing, Whiteout and the Total Recall remake.
5 ZOE SALDANA
Zoe Saldana has made a career out of playing action stars in her movies. Most of the world today know her best for her role in the Marvel Cinematic Universe as Gamora in Guardians of the Galaxy. While she has mastered the green-skinned superhero, that isn't the only place that Saldana has managed to kick some serious butt.
It isn't even her only major franchise, as she also starred as Uhura in J.J. Abrams Star Trek movies. Add in her role in James Cameron's Avatar, the comic book adaptation The Losers and the pure action thriller Colombiana, and there is no questioning Saldana's skills.
4 MICHELLE RODRIGUEZ
When the first Resident Evil movie came along, it made Milla Jovovich a major female action star but she wasn't even the toughest woman in that first film. That would be Michelle Rodriguez as Rain, a role she took on a second time in Resident Evil: Retribution.
With that said, Rodriguez really proved her toughness as Letty in The Fast and the Furious franchise. She appeared in five of the eight movies and proved to be even tougher than Vin Diesel at times. Add in everything from S.W.A.T. and Girlfight to Avatar and Machete, and Rodriguez might be the queen of female action stars.
3 PAM GRIER
Head back to the '70s, and there isn't anyone cooler or more deadly than Pam Grier's Foxy Brown. With that role, Grier proved that in her era there wasn't a tougher woman on the entire planet than her and she dominated the '70s, both as Foxy as well as her numerous women in prison movies where she was the baddest woman on the block.
Grier got a chance to return to the public eye thanks to Quentin Tarantino and Jackie Brown, where she played the title character. That led to a short resurgence and a role in John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars where she reminded people exactly how tough she was.
2 MICHELLE YEOH
While Zhang Ziyi proved for a few years to be the toughest woman in Asian cinema, she owes a lot to the women who came before her and the best of the best has to be Michelle Yeoh. Jackie Chan might be the most talented action star in Asian cinema but Yeoh even upstaged him in Police Story 3.
Yeoh then took American audiences by storm, first in the Bond movie Tomorrow Never Dies and then alongside Ziyi in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. When talking about the biggest action stars of Hong Kong cinema, there is Jackie Chan, Jet Li, and Michelle Yeoh, and that says it all.
1 LINDA HAMILTON
While Linda Hamilton might not star in as many action movies as someone like Michelle Yeoh or Michelle Rodriguez, she portrayed possibly the greatest female action hero of all time when she took on the role of Sarah Connor in Terminator.
While she was mostly a damsel in distress in that movie, she morphed into one of the baddest women on the planet in Terminator 2: Judgment Day. She is dangerous, smart, brave and emotionally scarred. If someone chose one female action hero to protect them, Sarah Connor would top the list and that makes Linda Hamilton the best female action star of all-time.