With Black Widow and Gunpowder Milkshake having recently burst onto screens, formidable women are flinging punches and shooting bullets. Thankfully, this isn’t a rare occurrence. The two movies join a long list of female-led action films; we’ve picked the 10 best.
Never underestimate a woman and her cat. Alien is a horror film, a science-fiction film and an action film, and it’s a superb example of all three—due in no small part to its female and feline heroes. Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley proves even more of a force to be reckoned with in the franchise’s subsequent chapters, 1986’s Aliens, 1992’s Alien 3 and 1997’s Alien Resurrection. However the character’s debut appearance in the 1979 original remains her best. The Nostromo warrant officer adapts to a terrifying and unexpected threat and does whatever it takes to survive, in one of the best movies ever made.
Like the Alien franchise, The Terminator series could easily have multiple entries on this list—but again its first entry thoroughly deserves its spot. Once more, there’s a particular potency to watching the saga’s heroine adjust to the chaos around her for the first time. In James Cameron’s humans-versus-machines storyline, this involves a cyborg assassin (Arnold Schwarzenegger) sent back from 2029 to 1984 to kill the woman, Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), who’ll eventually give birth to the resistance fighter that’ll challenge the AI-controlled post-apocalyptic future.
The Luc Besson film that spawned both Hong Kong and Hollywood remakes, as well as two TV series, La Femme Nikita is just one of the filmmaker’s female-focused action movies. The story revolves around the titular teen (Anne Parillaud) who segues from adolescent criminal to incarcerated murderer to government-sanctioned assassin. As often proves the case with Besson’s work, his fluid style and flair for the dramatic (and the over-the-top) suits the genre perfectly. His knack for casting also shines here, with Parillaud demanding the audience’s attention in every scene.
Animations can be action movies too, with Studio Ghibli’s Princess Mononoke being an engrossing and gorgeous example. When it comes to Hayao Miyazaki’s many anime masterpieces, the 1997 gem nears the top of the list. Its eco-conscious messaging, and the passion it puts into getting this across, isn’t easily forgotten. Penned and directed by the great Japanese filmmaker, the movie heads back centuries to Muromachi-era Japan, into a battle between humans and forest gods angered by their destructive ways. Raised by wolves, its namesake crosses paths with a young prince caught in the middle of the fight.
The film that catapulted the radiant Franka Potente to stardom—and filmmaker Tom Tykwer too—Run Lola Run is a kinetic action-thriller that deploys its multi-timeline approach with smarts and finesse. As the eponymous figure, Potente pounds the Berlin pavement to stop a chain of events that’ll forever change her character’s life. Tykwer ensures all that running, and all the twists of fate that come with each of the movie’s alternate timelines, rush across the screen like a shot of cinematic adrenaline. There’s a good reason that the film instantly became not just a German classic, but a classic of the action genre.
Directed by Ang Lee and choreographed by Yuen Woo-ping, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’s wuxia sequences are things of overwhelming beauty. In scenes that’ve left an inescapable mark upon action choreography, the thrust of every sword and the swing of each fist feel like steps in an entrancing dance. Ang Lee’s Oscar-winning action-drama has many highlights, including its embrace of grand martial arts melodrama, its eye-catching scenery and its involving narrative. However, it wouldn’t be the film it is without its two leading ladies guiding the show.
When Quentin Tarantino loves something, he makes his own version. As his script for True Romance already told the world, he adores martial arts cinema. So, films like Kill Bill Vol 1 and 2 were always going to grace his resume at some point—and fans of not just swordfighting films, but of grindhouse and blaxploitation movies have been thankful since. As The Bride, Uma Thurman plays the kind of woman no-one should ever cross. As one of her former colleagues-turned-enemies, Lucy Liu is just as commanding. Exceptional female action performances abound in this revenge-driven tale, including via Vivica A Fox and Daryl Hannah.
Even if she didn’t sport a shaved head, Natalie Portman would’ve stood out in V for Vendetta. Hers is just that kind of performance, even in a movie that always leaves an imprint at every moment. She plays Evey Hammond, the British Television Network employee who gets caught up in V’s (Hugo Weaving) violent and rebellious efforts to bring about a revolution. Portman’s resume isn’t short on exceptional performances, but there’s a distinctive weight, presence, force and texture to her portrayal in this page-to-screen dystopian action-thriller, adapting Alan Moore’s graphic novel of the same name.
At its most reductive and simplistic, Atomic Blonde could be described as John Wick but set three decades earlier, and focusing on a female spy rather than a male hitman. The two movies share a director in David Leitch, both overflowing with balletic action choreography. But if there’s one thing that Charlize Theron always proves on screen, it’s that she can more than hold her own in any situation. She’s simply magnificent as Lorraine Broughton, the MI6 field agent sent undercover in Berlin just prior to the collapse of the wall. While Theron has more than a few great action roles to her name (yes, that’s a trend on this list), this’ll always remain a firm highlight.
With Widows, an exceptional filmmaker, a stunning script and a phenomenal cast of impressive women all combine. Every Steve McQueen movie is an event worth taking notice of, but here he wrings every bit of tension he can out of his co-penned script—with Gone Girl’s Gillian Flynn, no less—and enlists an array of actresses at the top of their games. Viola Davis, Elizabeth Debicki, Michelle Rodriguez and Cynthia Erivo all play women who fall into the titular category, who are willing to pull off a daring heist to secure the futures that’ve otherwise been robbed from them. Widows delves much deeper than that, but it also always operates as a first-rate thriller.