When it comes to the action genre, women usually get short-changed. For the longest time, female characters are usually there in service to the male protagonists in some way — whether a lover interest, victim, etc.. It’s a issue that goes beyond Hollywood, and it’s only recently that things are starting to turn around in action.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t any female-led action films. In fact, some of the best action films have strong protagonist played by women. Strong not only in the physical sense, but also in character and personality, at times adding a dimension to the plot that somehow can’t work with the male counterpart. While that’s not applicable to all of the films below, the ones that do are all the better for it.
Admittedly, I haven’t seen a ginormous of amount of action films starring women, and that’s completely my fault as it is those producing them. There are going to be some repeat names, so I apologize if that seems unfair, but I do believe that they totally deserves the praise, as do all the other talent mentioned below.
While I’d like to include films such as “The Raid 2” or the Marvel films with the Black Widow in them, I’ve omitted those choices since they’re technically not the leads, no matter how memorable those character’s are onscreen.
Once again, if there’s a film that you don’t see, PLEASE mention them in the comments below and take me to task. I’m honestly looking to discover more action films, especially those starring women.
15. Haywire (2011, Steven Soderbergh)
Gina Carano’s acting in “Haywire” isn’t particularly good. Soderbergh even had her voice overdubbed, since her performance didn’t fit his vision of the character. However, Soderbergh didn’t hire her for her acting, but rather her skills as a fighter. A MMA star in real life, Carano performs her own stunts as a ex-special forces agent Mallory Kane, brutally beating down and choking out quite a few people on her quest for vengeance.
Upon release, many found “Haywire” bland outside the action. Carano’s performance is stiff, but she absolutely delivers in the fight scenes. Soderbergh doesn’t go crazy with the editing, but instead has the camera stayed focus on the choreography, letting the audience take in her MMA skills on display.
He also doesn’t feel the need to add music, letting the intensity and brutality of the moves play for maximum effect. Part me feels a bit bad for actors Channing Tatum and Michael Fassbender, since they’ve gone on to report getting hurt by Carano during filming. “Haywire” is a lesser Soderbergh film, but I think it’s somewhat underrated.
14. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009, Niels Arden Oplev)
The action in the original Swedish version of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” is sparse, with small bursts of visceral and uncomfortable act of violence in certain scenes. The film (and Fincher’s remake) are fantastic slow-burn procedurals. Aside from violent sequences, it’s not quite the action film in the traditional sense.
However, the reason why the film is on this list is due to the character of Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace). To simply write her off as a troubled goth is unfair, since Lisbeth is intelligent, determined, and takes control of most situations and scenes she inhabits. While the film opens with the other protagonist — journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) — it’s Lisbeth’s hacking and agency that drive the plot forward in interesting ways.
Even after the character is violated in a way that would break most people (male or female), Lisbeth comes back even harder without losing her edge, sexuality and aim. Noomi Rapace is fantastic in the role, and fans of mystery thrillers should check out this film or David Fincher’s 2011 remake. The sequels are ok, but the first installment is where it’s at.
13. La Femme Nikita (1990, Luc Besson)
“La Femme Nikita” is definitely one of Luc Besson’s better films. With a premise that definitely has legs (enough for a remake and two TV spinoffs in the U.S.), Besson’s film boast style and energy in the direction, complemented by Anne Parillaud’s performance. It’s a bit dated, but still worth recommending, mainly due to what these two bring to the film.
Besson’s action films have some form of high-octane, kinetic tone and “La Femme Nikita” no different. Visually, the use of color is hypnotic and effective, all done with absolute flair. The action scenes — particularly the gunfights — are staged and shot well, still exciting to watch even today.
Anne Parillaud’s performance is memorable as the titular character. Going from condemned junkie to femme fatale spy, Parillaud not only nails the transformation, but retains the manic and feral part of Nikita’s personality throughout the film. Both Parillaud and her character’s performance become much more complex and conflicting after her “reformed” self finds romance with an an unsuspecting guy. Thank’s to both Besson and Parillaud, we’re on board with Nikita every step of the way.
12. Hanna (2011, Joe Wright)
Saoirse Ronan plays the eponymous character in a film about a sheltered 16-year old who’s trained her entire life to survive and persevere against not only nature, but an intelligence agency out to find her and her father (Eric Bana).
Joe Wright’s “Hanna” isn’t a straightforward action film like most of the entries on the list. It’s paced much slower and a bit excessive in style, playing up a fairytale element that seems odd for a film featuring a 16-year old girl who skillfully murders adults. Still, when the action hits, it’s inventive and effective.
While there’s an awesome fight sequence featuring her father and a group of agents in a subway, Hanna’s bouts are just as engaging to witness. Complemented by an awesome score by The Chemical Brothers, her major action sequences are impressive, but my favorite bit has to be the quiet finale between Hanna and Cate Blanchett’s creepy antagonist.
11. Lady Snowblood (1973, Toshiya Fujita)
Yuki (Meiko Kaji) is no ordinary Japanese women in the late-19th century Japan. Concealed in Yuki’s umbrella is the sword she uses during her quest for vengeance against the people responsible for killing the one’s she loved.
A gorgeous and violent revenge film, “Lady Snowblood” will leave an the impression for fans of Japanese samurai flicks from the 1970s. It left definitely left an impression on director Quentin Tarentino, becoming a major inspiration for “Kill Bill Vol. 1.” It’s violent, but also gorgeously shot, making some of the quieter scenes (especially the flashbacks) have mood and weight. The action is also great. The sword fights are swift, bloody and well shot.
The blood-soaked snowscape is near iconic for people who love samurai films, and “Lady Snowblood” is exceptional in those moments. Yuki is the walking personification of the angel of death, her white kimono and pale complexion render her both cold and beautiful, making her a graceful force to be reckon. This is highly recommended for fans “Kill Bill Vol. I” and samurai films such as the “Lone Wolf and Club” series.
10. Everly (2015, Joe Lynch)
Many action films owe quite a bit to “Die Hard,” taking the one-location conceit and pushing it to it’s creative limit. Films like “The Raid: Redemption” and “Dredd” are recent examples of that working really well. Jodie Foster has starred in two films such films (“Panic Room” and “Flightplan”), but I’d argue those films aren’t that great.
Horror maestro Joe Lynch takes a stab at the genre and conceit to make something fun and truly his own with “Everly.” Salma Hayek stars as Everly, playing the ex-lover of a yakuza boss who battles against wave after wave his henchmen sent to kill her.
What’s awesome about this small indie action film is that Lynch does enough to keep the film from being completely one note. He and the script changes things up to keep the film interesting and fun, while appropriately upping the stakes as Everly’s situation becomes more volatile. The people sent to kill her start out as the typical black-suited yakuza before becoming much more…stranger.
The action is bloody and at times gory, with shades of Takashi Miike in one specific sequence. I also didn’t expect this film to have a bit of heart, which made Everly’s battle all the more impactful. The acting could be a little bit better all around, but Salma Hayek is great as Everly, both badass and sexy in the main role. Lynch pushes the conceit (and the apartment) to the limit in “Everly” with what seems to be a small budget.
9. Yes, Madam (1985, Corey Yuen)
During the 90s, video stores had many straight-to-video action films shelved along with mainstream releases. When it came to American, female action stars in that particular area, I found no name more prevalent that Cynthia Rothrock.
Since her teens, Rothrock has trained in martial-arts, earning several blackbelts in a variety of disciplines, also a champion in more than a handful of martial-arts tournaments. She simply lives and breathes martial-arts. Of all her filmography, “Yes, Madam” is not only one an awesome movie that showcases her abilities, but it also teams her up with the one and only Michelle Yeoh.
Directed by Corey Yuen, “Yes, Madam” sees both Rothrock and Yeoh playing two separate police-officers who join forces against the Triad in their own lethal, kickass ways. It’s pretty cliché, and a setup that’s been done in countless other action films. However, both stars demonstrate technique and skill that’s reminiscent of not only peak Jackie Chan, but also acrobatics reminiscent of longtime collaborator Yuen Biao.
“Yes, Madam” plays like the old Chan, Hung, and Biao films, down to the sound-effects and the slow-motion impacts made famous by the trio and their seniors. Like those films, it’s also lighthearted and fun, knowing full well that the audience is there to have a good time.