This past weekend saw the biggest box-office opening of the year so far, with “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part One” taking over $120 million in just three days. It might be down a little on previous entries in the franchise, but it’s still a hefty sum, one that’s even more remarkable because the series is something that naysayers once thought was implausible: a giant sci-fi action tentpole led by a woman.
For years, the received wisdom was that the teen boys that studios were aiming their pictures towards wouldn’t see a movie with a female lead, let alone one with the progressive gender politics of “The Hunger Games” (the latest movie revolves around Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss Everdeen’s bid to rescue dude-in-distress Peeta). But the franchise has proven them firmly wrong: Katniss is one of the strongest role models in cinema, and audiences flock in droves to see her regardless of their own gender.
Of course, those who believed it would never work were overlooking dozens of badass women onscreen prior who helped to pave the way for Katniss and co. S, to mark the box-office success of “Mockingjay – Part 1,” we’ve picked out some of our favorite film heroines. Not all were box-office smashes in the same way as the Hunger Games series, but all of them long ago proved that women can be action movie leads that are just as, if not more, compelling than their more testosterone-addled counterparts.
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It should probably be noted that we’ve gone for characters and performances that feel closer to Lawrence’s in “The Hunger Games,” sticking mostly to action and sci-fi genres, which means that the picks are predominantly (but not exclusively) from Hollywood studio movies, and in the English language —film noir femme fatales, for instance, didn’t quite fit our criteria, while the thriving national action cinemas of certain foreign regions like Asia could populate their own list several times over. Even within those limitations, there were plenty to choose from and plenty more where they came from: take a look at our picks below, and add your own in the comments. Just remember to keep it civil —we’ve spent a couple of days now watching these amazing women kick, punch, shoot, stab, slice and crush their way through their adversaries, so we’re in no mood to be trifled with.
Sigourney Weaver as Ripley in “Aliens”
Choosing who to leave out was already tough, so we decided against ranking this list. Frankly, if we had, numbers 2-25 would be up for grabs. Weaver’s Ellen Ripley is simply the most iconic female action star the movies have given us, and this James Cameron sequel is where she came into her own, as she transforms from the “soft” civilian drone of “Alien” into a full-on warrior forged in the crucible of survivalism. Just avoid Cameron’s Director’s Cut, which implies that Ripley bonds with Newt because she misses her own daughter; we infinitely prefer believing that Ripley saves Newt because that’s simply what a hero does.
Zoe Bell as Zoe Bell in “Death Proof“
The “Grindhouse” experiment turned out to be disappointing, but might not have been had Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino stuck to the original plan of shooting two short features shown as a double bill. Exhibit A in that argument is the second half of “Death Proof”: when the awful lapdances and stilted performances of the first group of girls are over, and the second gang (Rosario Dawson, Mary Elisabeth Winstead, Tracie Thomas and Zoe Bell) take over, the film becomes kind of a blast, culminating in Bell’s thrilling extended car-hood sequence and the gleeful vigilantism of the finale, in which Kurt Russell gamely gets pulverized by three really pissed off women.
Cynthia Rothrock as China O’Brien in “China O’Brien“
5-time World Champion, holder of 6 black belts in various disciplines (and a 7th degree black belt in Tangsudo) Rothrock is obviously the real deal, plus there’s the small fact that she was one of the very few westerners ever to become a bona fide Hong Kong Action star (her HK debut also starred listmate Michelle Yeoh). The “China O’Brien” movies are great ’80s throwback fun, with shoulder pads so massive they could be weaponized, chop-socky sound effects and sub b-movie plotting, none of which conceals just how great the fight scenes are, nor detract from the omnipresent joy of watching a diminutive blonde kick seven shades of shite out of a variety of musclebound knuckleheads, often sporting bandannas.
Pam Grier as Coffy in “Coffy“
The generation that discovered Pam Grier through Tarantino might have gone straight to Jackie’s namesake “Foxy Brown” when looking to check out one of her old titles, but for our money, “Coffy” is a better film in every way (“Foxy Brown” was originally designed as a sequel). Grier’s titular nurse/vigilante goes on a rampage against the drug dealers who destroyed her sister’s life in full-on exploitation style, so Grier is equal parts naked, gun-toting, debased and debasing (as in an extended catfight scene which must boast highest number of ripped-dresses-displaying-bared-breasts ever). But Coffy, who pioneers the signature move of hiding weapons in her afro, is undeniably badass and completely foxy.
Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow in “The Avengers”
Johansson had already shown her mettle in “Iron Man 2” in catsuited glory but the characterization, humor and subversion that this “Avengers” scene deploys is probably the moment that the Johannsonaissance (sorry) started for us in earnest. Since then, she’s also been one of many kick-ass Besson heroines via “Lucy,” but this surely is a marker in her career as an action star. From the way she upends the damsel in distress routine to the way she smashes that chair out from under her (love how she’s implied to have heft and not be some weightless nymph), to the fact that she does the whole thing in her stockinged feet, this scene is reason no. 1 we love Black Widow.
Angelina Jolie as Fox in “Wanted“
In a relative rarity for female stars, Angelina Jolie has proven more popular when she’s making action movies (“Mr & Mrs Smith,” “Tomb Raider,” “Salt“) than in other genres, and though she’s delivered a number of iconic performances, her most defining might be in Timur Bekmambetov’s “Wanted.” A stylish (also rather bad) movie, it sees the megastar play mentor as Fox, the tattooed master assassin who gives James McAvoy’s Wesley a tutorial in the art of killing folk via the power to bend bullets. It’s a supremely physical performance in a way that so few except Jolie could pull off, but she also imbues the character with a sly wit that helps to make the film a sight more bearable when she’s onscreen.
Lori Petty as Tank Girl in “Tank Girl”
It might have taken Marvel and DC decades to get around to female comic-book heroes, but United Artists were at least well ahead of the game with their adaptation of the cult underground riot girl heroine. Rachel Talalay’s film is admittedly a bit rubbish, with budgetary and tonal issues all over the place, but it’s got a lot more character to it than many of its modern day equivalents, thanks in part to Lori Petty’s manic, Looney Tunes-ish central performance, a piece of perfect casting in the middle of an almighty mess. Imagine if she’d had a more worthwhile script…
Uma Thurman as Beatrix Kiddo in “Kill Bill”
To his immense credit, Tarantino’s generally featured very strong female characters, but the most obviously kick-ass of the bunch is Beatrix Kiddo, aka the blood-soaked bride heroine of the two-part “Kill Bill” epic. The director’s muse Uma Thurman gave an instantly iconic performance as she took on dozens of Yakuza, dug her way out of a grave, and finally manages to fulfill the title (with a single punch, no less). Endless homages and Halloween costumes were born as a result, and Thurman’s place in cinema history was secured.
Jenette Goldstein as Vasquez in “Aliens”
Of all the many air-punching moments in “Aliens,” probably our single favorite is surprisingly a moment lacking Ripley, Hicks, or even an Alien. “Hey Vasquez, you ever been mistaken for a man?” sneers Bill Paxton’s Hudson. “No,” she whips back, “have you?” Between that and the greatest, toughest final words of all time (“You always were an asshole, Gorman”) Vasquez may have the least screen time of any entrant on this list, but she makes an impression so indelible that even Goldstein herself, despite subsequent roles in “Near Dark” and “The Presidio” and bit parts in a couple more Cameron films, never escaped that character’s awesome, buff shadow.
Summer Glau as River Song in “Serenity“
Joss Whedon is another male creator with an admirable commitment to strong female characters, and aside from his best-known creation “Buffy The Vampire Slayer,” the best example of that is likely “Serenity” and its short-lived parent series “Firefly.” There’s an admirable breadth and diversity of awesome women in his sci-fi universe (special shout-out to the great Gina Torres as right-hand woman Zoe), but it’s Summer Glau as troubled walking weapon River, a slip of a thing able to take out a room full of thugs with a ballerina’s grace (and, thanks to Glau’s performance, a light comic touch), who turned out to be the baddest ass on the Serenity ship.
Angela Bassett as Mace in “Strange Days“
We’ll never know why this fabulously sleazy, cyberpunkish sci-fi from Kathryn Bigelow was not a bigger hit than it was. Even now, it’s mostly remembered for Juliette Lewis’ bad girl rock star (covering PJ Harvey), at the expense of the film’s indisputably best female character, Angela Bassett’s Mace. The loyal, strong-willed, strong minded and just strong best friend/bodyguard to Ralph Fiennes’ amoral huckster Lenny, she can kick ass, look incredible and never lose her moral compass. Which culminates in one of the most satisfying romances in cinema, when the idiot Lenny grows the f up and realizes that the best woman in the world for him (and maybe in that whole fucked up world, period) is right there. Only the trailer is available, but you get a glimpse of Mace in action late on.
Milla Jovovich as Leeloo in “The Fifth Element“
There’s an undoubted element of male fantasy to the element-made-human heroine of Luc Besson’s sci-fi fantasy (the Gallic director came up with the idea for the film when he was just 16, and it fucking shows, not least in the Jean-Paul Gaultier band-aid costume she wears when we first meet her), but once Milla Jovovich’s Leeloo gets some clothes on, she becomes a better drawn figure. There’s something admirably alien about Jovovich’s performance, and she can project a winning vulnerability even when grappling with bad guys. The actress is better known for the endless, impossibly tedious “Resident Evil” movies now, but this is definitely her finest action hour.
Noomi Rapace and Rooney Mara as Lisbeth Salander in “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” (2009/2011)
Not many characters can sustain two separate, star-making performances within a couple of years of each other, but it’s testament to the title character of Stieg Larsson’s “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” that she was able to do exactly that. You can dismiss the idea of a sociopathic, bisexual computer hacker as a male fantasy, but both Noomi Rapace (in the 2009 Swedish version) and Rooney Mara (Oscar-nominated in David Fincher’s 2011 English-language remake) make Lisbeth Salander far more than just a Suicide Girls pin-up, imbuing the contradictions of the figure with both steel and vulnerability.
Michelle Yeoh as Yu Shu Lien in “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon“
While we’re skewing heavily toward Hollywood, if we were to count down the most formidable international female stars, Michelle Yeoh would be at the very top. But even if mainstream audiences don’t know her Hong Kong work (the one-time Miss Malaysia Yeoh started out opposite Jackie Chan) they probably know Ang Lee’s lovely melodrama which serves as an easy entry point into the whole wuxia genre for the uninitiated. Yeoh also made a capable Bond sidekick in “Tomorrow Never Dies” but we love the meta levels here, which see her handing the baton to a younger balletic badass in Zhang Ziyi (especially because Yeoh wins this particular showdown).
Carrie-Anne Moss as Trinity in “The Matrix”
Sure, Keanu Reeves’ Neo is the nominal hero of “The Matrix,” but until he upgrades to full-on Jesus mode in the closing stages, he’s kind of a lovable doofus: if you really want names taken and asses kicked, you have to go to Carrie-Anne Moss’ Trinity. Few beyond devotees of “F/X: The Series” were familiar with the Canadian actress before the Wachowskis’ film hit, but from the moment she was introduced (“I think we can handle one little girl,” go the famous last words of one copper), pulling off impossible feats in a mostly leather outfit, we instantly had an action icon for the ages.
Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor in “Terminator 2“
Following a somewhat similar arc to Ellen Ripley, Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor appears in the first “Terminator” as a sweet-natured waitress entirely unaware of and unprepared for her destiny. But as “Terminator 2” begins, she’s already a completely different woman, mentally and as this iconic introduction proves, physically. She’s such an enduringly popular character that 2008 TV show “The Sarah Connor Chronicles” attempted to put her front-and-center of her own (pretty decent) series. But all due respect to Lena Headey, she simply isn’t Linda Hamilton, and with Hamilton almost solely identified with this role, why would you accept any substitutes?
Michelle Rodriguez as Diana Guzman in “Girlfight”
She’s achieved substantial fame in many action blockbusters such as “Avatar,” “SWAT,” “Battle: Los Angeles,” “Resident Evil” (alongside fellow multiple-potential-candidate Milla Jovovich) and of course the enormous “Fast & Furious” franchise, but it was elevating this small, fairly formulaic indie from Karyn Kusama into something special that started it for Rodriguez. As the troubled girl channeling her anger into the sport of boxing, she arrived instantly as one of brightest stars of the Hollywood action scene —she’s a force of nature, moody, beautiful and tough to her fingertips. For more on the film, check out our features on less-seen combat sports movies.
Geena Davis as Samantha Caine/Charly Baltimore in “The Long Kiss Goodnight”
At the time, “The Long Kiss Goodnight” was seen as a huge piece of Hollywood hubris: one of the highest spec script sales in history for Shane Black, and the second giant flop in a row for married director/star pairing Geena Davis and Renny Harlin after “Cutthroat Island,” derailing the careers of all three. In fact, the film’s a lot of fun (easily Harlin’s best), and much of that is down to Davis’ central performance as amnesiac suburban mom Samantha who discovers that she was actually a CIA badass. There’s real screwball grace to the comic aspects of the turn, but also a demented relish once she gets the peroxide and sub-machine gun out. Would that she’d been able to do more of it.
Claire Danes (voice only, English version) as San in “Princess Mononoke”
There are other tough heroines in animation —we’re not forgetting the likes of “Brave,” and “Mulan” or indeed Wyldstyle from “The Lego Movie”— but erm, well… did any of them survive being thrown to wolves by craven parents? Then get raised by said wolves to become a warrior Princess who identifies as a wolf? Then wage war on humanity, personified by Lady Eboshi (herself pretty damn kick-ass, though less of a heroine)? No? Well then. San, the titular character (though not the lead) of our favorite of all the great Hayao Miyazaki movies takes the cake for us. Only the trailer available, but you do get a glimpse of her fab facepaint/mask/wolf pelt/dagger ensemble.
Emily Blunt as Rita Vratasky in “Edge Of Tomorrow”
No wonder that people are campaigning for Emily Blunt to play Captain Marvel after her turn as the most recent addition to our list, in Doug Liman’s undervalued summer sci-fi “Edge Of Tomorrow.” The British actress had already proven her versatility, but she absolutely walked away with the movie (even as Tom Cruise gave his best performance in ages), effortlessly convincing as both the hardened ‘Full Metal Bitch’ soldier, and the scared, ordinary woman who only got that way by dying endlessly. Even if the film never quite caught on with audiences, it should be a career redefining role for the actress.
Chloe Moretz as Hit-Girl in “Kick Ass”
There’s ever so much that doesn’t work in Matthew Vaughn’s superhero semi-parody “Kick Ass,” but one of the things that really does is Chloe Moretz and her gleeful embodiment of psychotic purple-haired tween assassin Hit-Girl. Cutting or blasting her way through swathes of villains to the tune of The Banana Splits or Joan Jett, Moretz (then aged only twelve) more than pulls off the combat, but also, in her relationship with Nicolas Cage’s Big Daddy, gives the picture what little heart it has. The less said about the dire sequel the better, obviously.
Anne Parillaud as Nikita in “La Femme Nikita”
Luc Besson could have been the patron saint of this list, but one shouldn’t mistake his gun-toting, ass-kicking but never less than male-gazey drop-dead-sexy protagonists as an instance of feminist credentials. But you can trace all the Lucys and Leeloos and revenge-bent Zoe Saldanas (“Colombiana”) as well as Bridget Fonda in the subpar US remake and even his take on Joan of Arc, to the ground zero of 1990’s “La Femme Nikita,” Besson’s first foray into the subgenre. Parillaud’s sine qua non assassin in a cocktail dress is hot, dangerous and infinitely resourceful, but we do like that there are moments, even during this centerpiece action scene, at which even she loses hope.
Demi Moore as Jordan O’Neill in “GI Jane”
Liking Ridley Scott’s bleak and unquestioningly gung-ho “GI Jane” is not a popular stance, but here we are. Probably more a tribute to Demi Moore’s spectacular physique than a real story per se, the film’s politics may be dodgily militaristic, but there’s still a deep fascination watching the actress’ transformation from determinedly feminine, sexy love interest-type to outrageously buff, gruff, shaven-headed Navy SEAL. Trained/tortured physically and psychologically, she’s also the second of two women on this list (Geena Davis in “Long Kiss Goodnight” being the other) to claim the anatomically impossible “Suck my dick” as a motto, which isn’t big or clever, but we still get a kick out of it.
Saoirse Ronan as Hanna in “Hanna”
Joe Wright’s “Hanna” is in many ways a film as slender as its tiny protagonist, but it features a terrifically ferocious performance from future Streep-esque multiple Oscar-winner Ronan (we’re calling it now) that makes the most of her knack for portraying outsiders, young girls of almost alien lonesomeness and curiosity. But her wild thing character, essentially a riff on the raised-by-wolves myth (see “Princess Mononoke”!) also gets to kill a lot of people, most stylishly in this scene, which we love for Ronan but also for Cate Blanchett’s pitch perfect, monstrous reaction of shock, fright and unabashed admiration and pride.
Gina Carano as Mallory Kane in “Haywire”
If part of the thrill is knowing that that the actors onscreen are doing their own stunts, that goes triple for Steven Soderbergh’s experiment in the “real action” genre, “Haywire.” The film itself doesn’t really work, Carano’s line readings are pretty flat and the plot is an afterthought, but there are a couple of set pieces that are worth the price of admission alone. We obviously love Carano besting Channing Tatum in the first five minutes, but this hotel room dust up with Michael Fassbender is even better for so many reasons: how Carano takes, as well as doles out, a hit; her thigh grip choke hold; or the fact that the former MMA star is not above using whatever comes to hand —vases, sofas, pillows. Special mention to the two terrific showdowns between her and Rodriguez in “Fast & Furious 6” too.
Honorable Mentions: As we said, we’re barely scratching the surface with the twenty-five picks above, and some of the actresses could in fact have cropped up more than once: there’s Milla Jovovich in the “Resident Evil” films, Michelle Rodriguez in “The Fast & The Furious” or “Avatar,” Scarlett Johansson in “Lucy,” or Angelina Jolie in “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider,” “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” or “Salt.”
We also could have included Carrie Fisher as Leia in “The Empire Strikes Back,” Jennifer Garner in “Elektra,” Jessica Biel in “Blade Trinity,” Zoe Saldana in “Colombiana,” “The Losers” or “Guardians Of The Galaxy,” Rose MacGowan in “Planet Terror,” Noomi Rapace in “Prometheus,” Anne Hathaway in “The Dark Knight Rises,” Shailene Woodley in “Divergent,” Keira Knightley in “Domino,” Rhona Mitra in “Doomsday,” or the animated heroines of “Brave” or “Mulan,” among others. And we know we’ll get some stick for leaving off Kate Beckinsale in the “Underworld” movies, but sorry, none of us could muster the enthusiasm.
And for slight more leftfield picks we could have gone for, there’s a whole genre of revenge/exploitation flicks that we largely avoided, though Raquel Welch in “Hannie Caulder,” nearly made the grade, while Hilary Swank in “Million Dollar Baby,” Franka Potente in “Run Lola Run,” Susan Sarandon in “Thelma & Louise,” and Jane Fonda in “Barbarella” were all also considered. Anyone else? We’re sure there is … let us know in the comments.