Anyone who knows me, knows that I have an obsession with action movies – particularly crappy, B-Movie, Straight-to-DVD action movies. I own every film that Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren have done. I’ve seen almost every Stallone and Schwarzenegger movie out there, and was first in line to see all The Expendables films when they came out. Even the more obscure actors, like Michael Jai White and Olivier Grunier are ‘auto-watches’ for me. And the more terrible they are, the better.
So, as an avowed action lover, and a feminist, I go out of my way to find female-led action movies.
When I initially thought about writing this post, it was ‘top ten female B-Movie action stars of the 80s and 90s’.The 80s and 90s are my favourite eras! And the research required to write the post would be vastly entertaining. While I could only think of a few female action stars of that era off the top of my head, I was sure there must be plenty I was forgetting. I’ve seen a number of B-Movies with female leads. Haven’t I? Unfortunately, after thinking about it for a few weeks, and even researching films I’d never heard of in an effort to find some more, I could still barely make a top 5.
I was so disappointed. Surely Cynthia Rothrock could not have been the only woman making a career out of B-Movie action? Ex-porn star Traci Lords did a couple, but that was it. There simply had to be more female equivalents to Dolph Lundgren and JCVD.
So, I expanded my parameters.
Top ten female action stars of all time. Surely that would yield enough fodder for a large list.
But no. Despite my best efforts, I could not find enough women that classified as action stars. Many actresses, such as Lucy Lawless and Maggie Q, would have qualified if they’d been in more movies, but they are mostly only known for their roles on TV. Michelle Rodriguez comes the closest to being a bona fide action star, making her career in action-heavy roles, but she is rarely the lead in any of her movies. Gina Carano and Zoe Bell have done a few B-movie roles and are worth watching, and I have high hopes for Ronda Rousey. That still doesn’t quite make a top 5.
There were some action heroines, sure, back in the day. Sarah Connor, Ripley, Lara Croft…the list goes on. But the actresses who play those parts are equally – or even better – known for other roles. Do they qualify as action stars in the same way that Stallone or Schwarzenegger do? I honestly don’t think so.
I have to ask…why is this? Are female actresses simply more versatile? Or are there not enough action roles for a woman to sustain a career doing them? Movies with female heroines make a great deal of money, particularly lately, as this list will show. And yet they are still not even remotely as common as male-led action movies. I have my own theories of why this might be, but…oh, let’s face it, it’s sexism, isn’t it? Ugh.
There just seems so much left unexplored in the genre and it frustrates me!
In choosing the heroines on this list, I paid special attention to those that have carried their own film franchises. They are interesting and strong enough to lead multiple movies, and some still have sequels forthcoming. Clearly, the world is still hungry for female leads in action movies.
So, without further ado, my Top Thirteen Action Heroines list, in no particular order.
- Katniss Everdeen (The Hunger Games series)
Proving that female led action movies (and books) can appeal to both males and females, The Hunger Games series is one of the highest grossing film series of all time. Due in no small part to Jennifer Lawrence’s terrific performance, Katniss is the kind of complex, interesting female character that audiences were craving. Unfortunately, she was whitewashed for the films, which was disappointing. I hope they remake the films one day featuring a WoC as a heroine, and actually deal with Katniss and Peeta’s respective disabilities.
- Ellen Ripley (Alien series)
Ripley was the first true action heroine of cinema. Her iconic status helped pave the way for all the subsequent female-led action movies. And it’s not hard to see why. She’s tough, ballsy, and could hold her own against any threat, human or non-human. While the later films in the series may not quite live up to the brilliance of the first two, Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley is always compelling. Her impact is still felt 35 years after her first appearance, given that a recent-ish (and apparently pretty good) video game – Alien: Isolation – centres around her daughter, Amanda. There are still talks of a proper Alien sequel, but goodness knows if they’ll ever pan out.
- Lara Croft (Lara Croft: Tomb Raider & Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life)
Spawned from the popular video game series, Lara Croft has beauty, brains and an impressive physicality. Though I have my issues with the films and the games (they are, if nothing else, designed explicitly for the male gaze), Lara Croft is no doubt an iconic heroine. She is strong, capable and a symbol of self-empowerment for women. While Angelina Jolie was more than suitable for the role, I am excited to see what Alicia Vikander will do when she takes over in 2018. Hopefully she’ll be less of a ‘Fighting Fucktoy’ (FFT).
- The Bride (Kill Bill Volumes 1 & 2)
While I must admit to never being a great fan of Uma Thurman, The Bride is inarguably an awesome heroine. Never the subject of the voyeuristic male gaze, it is her violent revenge that is fetishized, not her body. She is a warrior, through and through, and her journey through nearly five hours of films is brutal, bloody, and absolutely fascinating.
- Alice (Resident Evil films)
So far Alice has led five films, with the sixth and final movie due out next year. Also based on a video game franchise, the Resident Evil films are an intriguing blend of horror and action, much like the Alien films. Milla Jovovich has built her career and a very successful franchise around the role of Alice, who is tough and capable (though admittedly highly sexualised. Again. Starting to notice a trend…). The franchise also features many other strong and interesting female characters, including Michelle Rodriguez’s Rain.
- Lucy (Lucy)
The most recent film on this list (not including forthcoming sequels) Lucy demolished the testosterone-heavy Dwayne Johnson-led Hercules at the box office. Scarlett Johansson’s Lucy flipped gender expectations, with her male sidekick playing the ‘love interest’ role that connects the heroine to her humanity. Lucy is an unusual action heroine in that she is not a physical force. She uses her mind and new-found powers, and prefers to temporarily disable her enemies rather than killing them. However, on the downside, ScarJo has now made rather a habit of playing characters that should be Asian. There are unfortunate racial undertones (overtones?) here and, oh, who am I kidding, it’s pretty racist.
- China O’Brien (China O’Brien 1 & 2)
I admit I mostly included China O’Brien because I couldn’t bear to leave Cynthia Rothrock off this list completely, and I enjoyed these films slightly more than the ‘Tiger Claws’ series. Though not a great actress, Rothrock managed to create a solid career in B-Movie action movies, including a number of Chinese films. While China O’Brien could have been a better movie, the character is still interesting. Small, pretty and blonde, China manages to kick the butts of many macho bad guys. And that is always satisfying to see.
- Selene (Underworld film series)
The gun-toting, catsuit-wearing Selene (another FFT) instantly captured the imagination of audience members when she debuted onscreen in 2003’s Underworld. Kate Beckingsale brought a toughness to the role that perfectly contrasted her pretty, vulnerable face. The mythology underpinning the Underworld film is dense enough that it has supported numerous films, one of which did not feature Selene at all (and is also the lowest grossing movie of the series). Selene will return in next year’s sequel Underworld: Blood Wars.
- Yu Shu Lien (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon)
While I mostly tried to stick to Western films for this list, there are plenty of indisputably awesome action heroines from around the world, particularly in Asian cinema. I couldn’t leave this list without mentioning at least one. Michelle Yeoh has starred in both American and Chinese films, and made a name for herself with action roles. None more familiar or iconic to Western audiences than that of Yu Shu Lien in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (and its Netflix sequel). Yu Shu Lien is a warrior, quick and powerful, she fights with elegance. This is contrasted with her reserve and maturity throughout most of the film.
- Samantha Caine / Charly Baltimore (The Long Kiss Goodnight)
Shane Black wrote some of the best action movies of the 90s. The Long Kiss Goodnight cements that reputation, but it is Geena Davis’ terrific turn as both school-teacher Samantha and CIA assassin Charly that truly makes the film. She uses her height and physicality to great effect, morphing into the terrifying (and awesome) Charly with ease. Seagal or Stallone were reportedly both considered for the role, and it’s hard to imagine either of them doing half as good a job. Just goes to show that female-led action movies can sometimes be more interesting than their testosterone-fuelled counterparts.
- Nikita/Maggie Hayward (Nikita (1990), Point of No Return/The Assassin, La Femme Nikita, Nikita (2010-2013)
Given that this was a list of action heroines, I felt that the fact that this character kept getting remade was reason enough to include her. The essence of the story remains the same each time. A woman with a questionable past is recruited by a shadowy organisation and trained to kill. Eventually, she escapes and regains her own agency, triumphing over those that had manipulated her for their own purposes. It is an empowering story, and one that still resonates with audiences. No doubt we have not seen the last of Nikita.
12. Imperator Furiosa (Mad Max: Fury Road)
While Max was meant to be the hero of this franchise, all that was blown out of the water when Furiosa came on screen. Fierce, unsexualised, badass, and with a hint of vulnerabilty, she is the action heroine that I have always dreamt of. (And minus an arm!) It didn’t hurt that I shipped her and Max like burning, but I think the film ended the way it needed to. The inevitable sequel to this film won’t be half as interesting if they move on from Furiosa’s character like they plan to. As much as I like Tom Hardy, Max won’t be the same without her. I say, either bring them back together, or do a spinoff with Furiosa as the lead. Otherwise, what’s the point?
13. Sarah Connor (The Terminator, Terminator 2, The Sarah Connor Chronicles)
I’ve saved my favourite for last. Over the course of two films, Sarah Connor (as played by Linda Hamilton) transformed from a vulnerable waitress into one of the best, toughest action heroines in American cinema. She knew the fate of the world was on her shoulders, and that of her young son, and because of that responsibility she hardened herself into a warrior. But Sarah still had her vulnerabilities, which just made her all the more human. The character still had enough depths to explore that she was granted a TV show starring Lena Headey in 2008, but it unfortunately only lasted 2 seasons. (Still pissed about that cliffhanger, not going to lie.) When the franchise was rebooted last year, Emilia Clarke didn’t quite set the world on fire with her version of the character, but I still enjoyed the first half hour of that film. But nothing can take away from Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor. It is no wonder that everyone in the future knew her name, and Kyle Reece idolised her by her reputation alone. She is an absolute icon.
Well, that’s my list of top action heroines. I think it is pretty clear that we need more diversity (when will I get my dream lesbian action heroine?) and less sexualisation, but that’s true of pretty much everything.
Agree/Disagree? Let me know in the comments!