A look at the top female action heroes in movies
This weekend, we say goodbye to one of the great action heroes of our generation. No, Jennifer Lawrence isn’t going anywhere, but Katniss Everdeen is. The protagonist of the popular
The Hunger Games series concludes her journey with , and walks off into legend as one of the greatest female action heroes in movie history. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2
Which is, if you think about it, fairly illustrious company. Although conventional (read: wrong) Hollywood wisdom dictates that most action heroes are men (white men, no less), there is an impressive list of female action heroes who have dominated the screen throughout the years. The list is getting longer every single year as women finally break through the action movie glass ceiling in larger numbers, and films like
The Hunger Games prove that audiences aren’t nearly as biased as the entertainment industry thinks they are.
So our list of
The Top Female Action Heroes has more recent entries than many lists of its ilk, but that’s a good thing. It means that the tide is finally turning, and that action movies with female heroes are emerging more frequently, and with increasing quality.
To narrow the list down a bit, we are limiting our picks to characters, not the actresses playing them, and only selecting one film (or film series) per actress. We are also focusing entirely on live-action (or significantly live-action) movies, since there are enough badass female action heroes in anime to fill a list all on their own. (Now that’s an idea…)
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The Top 20 Female Action Heroes
Lt. Ellen Ripley - The Aliens Series
It was a miracle that Ellen Ripley even survived the first
Alien movie. In James Cameron's sequel, she finally fought back, taking the fight directly to the Alien queen and setting the stage for two more sequels in which she refused to be victimized ever again. Sigourney Weaver remains one of the great action hero icons, regardless of gender.
Neytiri - Avatar
James Cameron's most successful motion picture may be about the dopey human male who gets all of the native Na'Vi killed on the planet Pandora, but we all know that Neytiri is the real hero here. She's the warrior who always stood by her principles, and as played by Zoe Saldana (with the aid of an army of animators), she embodied a unique new action hero for the modern age.
Zen - Chocolate
This Thai action thriller didn't make a big splash in the United States - at least, not outside of certain cult circles - but it deserves credit for its incredible action sequences and a unique heroine. Zen (Yanin "Jeeja" Vismistananda) is an autistic teenager who learns martial arts from watching TV, and puts those photographic reflexes to the test as she fights the Yakuza.
Yu Shu Lien and Jen Yu - Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
Not one but two great action heroes headline Ang Lee's Oscar-winning kung fu epic
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Michelle Yeoh represents maturity and grace and Zhang Ziyi represents recklessness and passion. Their fight together is one of the kung fu highlights of the 21st Century, and the two acclaimed actresses bring their characters to vibrant life even when they're not kicking ass.
Sgt. Rita Rose Vrataski - Edge of Tomorrow
It's Hollywood's latest trend: marketing an action movie's male hero while stealthily making the female hero infinitely more interesting. Emily Blunt stole the sleeper sci-fi film
Edge of Tomorrow from co-star Tom Cruise, dispatching aliens with ease and turning the more conventional superstar, repeatedly, into her punching bag.
Everly - Everly
It's only a matter of time before the cult of
Everly starts growing in earnest, so you might as well get on the ground floor now. This " Die Hard in a single room" thriller stars Salma Hayek as a kidnapping victim who turns against her captors, and dispatches wave after wave of brutal villains as she tries to save the life of her daughter. Hayek is always badass, but has she ever been THIS badass before? We think not.
Nikita - La Femme Nikita
Luc Besson's art house action thriller
La Femme Nikita became a cult sensation that spawned two hit TV series and an American remake, but none of them can hold a candle to the original. Anne Parillaud is practically feral at the beginning of the film, then the government transforms her into an assassin and she begins to relish, for the first time, a normal life... even if it's just her cover story.
Foxy Brown - Foxy Brown
Foxy Brown's boyfriend was a secret agent, but when he's killed in the line of duty she goes on a one-woman mission of revenge against a vile syndicate, destroying sex traffickers and rescuing their victims. Pam Grier is described as "a whole lotta woman," and the description fits. She is raw and powerful here, but it was difficult to decide between
Foxy Brown and Coffy as the film to represent her action movie career. Consider Coffy an honorable mention.
Cherry Darling and Zoë Bell - Grindhouse
The ambitious double-feature
Grindhouse introduced the world to two great female action heroes: former go-go dancer Cherry Darling (Rose McGowan), who loses a leg and gains an assault rifle, and stuntwoman Zoë Bell, playing herself in one of the most intense car chases ever filmed. Together they help make Grindhouse one of the best female-driven genre films in history.
Mallory Kane - Haywire
Few action stars get as prestigious a cinematic debut as Gina Carano. Oscar-winner Steven Soderbergh crafted the classy thriller
Haywire specifically for this MMA star, who plays a black ops agent on the run from an impressive supporting cast that includes Ewan McGregor and Channing Tatum. Steven Soderbergh is a brutal action director, but it's Carano who owns the film, dominating the screen with a performance that makes her seem perfectly at home in the deadliest situations.
Katniss Everdeen - The Hunger Games Series
Jennifer Lawrence is building up her action movie credentials (see also:
X-Men: First Class and Days of Future Past), but she will always be a legend for playing the reluctant revolutionary Katniss Everdeen in the blockbuster Hunger Games series. She's comfortable with a bow, uncomfortable with killing, and increasingly confident leading the disenfranchised to war against an apathetic ruling class.
Mindy Macready - Kick-Ass
Mindy Macready, aka "Hit Girl," is a contradiction. She's a pre-teen martial arts master and mass murderer of bad guys, and that's kind of awesome, but only if you ignore the fact that her father has brainwashed her into thinking there's nothing wrong with it.
Kick-Ass doesn't spend much time questioning her state of mind, which makes it rather a superficial film if you think about it, but Chloe Grace Moretz is undeniably fierce and formidable anyway.
The Bride - Kill Bill, Vol. 1 and 2
Over the course of the two
Kill Bill movies, Uma Thurman takes us on a rich and complicated journey of self-actualization, tragic love and violent vengeance. She's a thoroughly convincing fighter who dispatches an army of masked assassins, but when the time comes to confront the man who wronged her, she can still feel recognizably human emotions. Quentin Tarantino's films are vast in scope and intimate in nature, and Thurman gives arguably her best performance within them.
Yuki Kashima - The Lady Snowblood Series
One of the inspirations for
Kill Bill, and still some of the best comic book adaptations in history, the two Lady Snowblood movies represent some of the fiercest samurai movies ever produced. Meiko Kaji is a striking presence, and her saga - a journey of revenge against the men who violated and killed her mother - leads to one unforgettable sequence after another.
Lucy - Lucy
Scarlett Johansson may be more famous for playing The Black Widow in the many Marvel Studios movies, but she's been forced to play second fiddle for too long. In
Lucy, the actress gets a franchise centered entirely around her charisma and action prowess, and she nails it. The film itself is bizarre, about a normal young woman transformed into the world's smartest human and getting superpowers in the process, but Johansson sells it in every scene and emerges as a badass of epic proportions.
Imperator Furiosa - Mad Max: Fury Road
Another film that's ostensibly about a male action hero, but that gets completely stolen by his female co-star. Mad Max is pretty much just along for the ride in
Fury Road, while Charlize Theron's Imperator Furiosa kidnaps a warlord's sex slaves and fights off horde after horde of high-octane bastards in her quest to find freedom. Theron explodes off the screen, and so does practically everything else in George Miller's acclaimed post-apocalyptic thriller.
Alice - The Resident Evil Series
Of the two female-driven, utterly superficial action movie franchises,
Resident Evil has the most personality. (Sorry, Underworld fans.) Milla Jovovich has been bounding from one ridiculous, zombie-fighting, clone-army forming situation to the next over the course of this ludicrous series, and it only gets sillier - and more entertaining - with every passing sequel. Great male action heroes get away with dumb movies all the time ( Commando, anyone?), so we're happy to give Jovovich credit for making this series just as entertainingly weird.
Evelyn Salt - Salt
Angelina Jolie may be most recognizable, as an action star at least, for her
Tomb Raider movies, but they're not particularly good. Salt, however, is exceptional. The story of a CIA agent who is unexpectedly outed as a Russian spy, and who goes on the run to clear her good name, starts off like any clichéd thriller and then swiftly moves in unpredictable directions, turning the whole genre on its head while delivering old school thrills in the process. Jolie is great in the title role, revealing unusual complexity in a genre that isn't exactly famous for it.
Leia Organa - The Star Wars Trilogy
Princess Leia might need saving in
Star Wars: Episode IV, but only once, and she only gets captured because she was being a badass. They bring her to Darth Vader, the most threatening person in the galaxy, and she says "I thought I smelled something" right to his face. Then she proceeds to plan rebel warfare, infiltrate criminal underworlds, strangle Jabba the Hutt to death and take charge in an epic speeder chase. She is anything but a typical movie princess. She is a royal badass.
Sarah Connor - Terminator 2: Judgment Day
Sarah Connor was running from danger throughout the first
Terminator movie, and runs right into it in the blockbuster sequel to save her son from yet another killer automaton bent on bringing about the apocalypse. Linda Hamilton convincingly makes the transition from victim to hero, but James Cameron's film wisely dedicates time to illustrating the unthinkable psychological toll the events of these movies have had on a woman who, prior to these events, as just as normal as you or I.
Honorable Mention: Michelle Rodriguez
Michelle Rodriguez is one of the great 21st century movie badasses, but her career has mostly consisted of supporting roles. Sure, she stole scenes in
SWAT and Avatar, but those films were never about her characters, and the awesome Fast and Furious movies are so overloaded with characters that she rarely gets time to shine for more than a single scene at a time. So for a career of badasses, without a distinctive film all her own, we present Michelle Rodriguez with a very honorable, honorable mention.