Way back in 1979, Ridley Scott’s “Alien” brought us our first genuine female action hero in Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley. Despite the three sequels that followed, Ripley proved to be something of an outlier. Until fairly recently, a woman could kill someone in a movie only if she faced brutal punishment afterward, as in Scott’s “Thelma and Louise,” or in the inevitable fates of Bond girls: They could dole out lethal action, but rarely survived.
Today, ass-kicking women are no longer an anomaly or subject to automatic retribution. This weekend, we watched Scarlett Johansson lay waste to her enemies (although not the box office) in “Ghost in the Shell,” following a path blazed by the likes of Linda Hamilton (“Terminator 2: Judgment Day”), Uma Thurman (“Kill Bill”), and Michelle Yeoh (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”). These roles may strike a blow for equality and diversity, but what these women — and their agents — realize most of all is that carrying an action movie brings global marquee value and a much higher asking price. It’s a strategy that’s served men for decades.
Jessica Chastain starred in the execrable “The Huntsman: Winter’s War” to earn action bonafides. While protests surround Oscar-winner Alicia Vikander’s ascension to the “Tomb Raider” reboot, the Swedish actress is just playing the game. Even Helen Mirren played a lethal hit woman in “Red 2,” not that she’s planning an action career.
With that, here’s a ranked list of the top female action stars working today. We measured star power by each actress’ credibility across acting, action chops, box office domestic and global, ongoing franchises, and overseas bankability. Can their name get a movie made, now or in the future?
Of note: We did not not include stars who have some action cred, but who haven’t been identified primarily as an action star. These include Jennifer Lawrence, Margot Robbie, Natalie Portman, Chloe Grace Moretz, Emily Blunt, Felicity Jones, Halle Berry, Anne Hathaway, Jennifer Garner, Keira Knightley, Rooney Mara, Noomi Rapace, and Shailene Woodley. But there’s no reason that they couldn’t do it, too.
From where we sit, the studios could come up with a lot more projects for these women as solo leads.
1. Angelina Jolie. She carried two “Tomb Raider” movies as Lara Croft, could have had a franchise with “Wanted” but passed, scored in international spy thriller “Salt,” held her own with future partner Brad Pitt in “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” and kicked global box office as “Maleficent.” She can do whatever she chooses in the action arena, but often prefers to write, direct and act in more meaningful fare.
2. Scarlett Johansson. She has delivered as Avenger Black Widow in five entries in the Marvel universe (and still deserves a standalone) but Luc Besson put her front and center in “Lucy,” which she carried with no male support, to a $457 million worldwide gross. That’s why she was cast in “Ghost in the Shell,” based on the manga comic and animated feature — a flop that proved once again that if imitators have already sucked a property dry, it may be too familiar to be commercial no matter who stars in it. She still has a starry future.
3. Charlize Theron. She’s come a long way from “Aeon Flux,” steadily building her action cred until she dominated Tom Hardy as one-handed Imperator Furiosa in “Mad Max: Fury Road.” Stunt wrangler and “John Wick” director David Leitch pushed her to master martial arts kickfighting and gun stunts for “Atomic Blonde,” in which she performs unbelievable hand-to-hand combat (in long takes) that would give Chow Yun Fat pause. Next up: the villain in “The Fate of the Furious.”
4. Gal Gadot. Warner Bros. picked this Israeli military vet and Miss Israel winner to play DC Comics’ Wonder Woman after she scored in “Fast & Furious,” “Fast Five,” and “Fast & Furious 6.” She stole the show from the big boys in “Batman v. Superman,” returns in “Justice League,” and wowed CinemaCon with footage from “Wonder Woman,” which she carries with support from “Star Trek” star Chris Pine.
5. Rebecca Ferguson. The Swedish-born actress stood up to Tom Cruise and then some in “Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation” and returns in “MI 6.” She costarred with Emily Blunt in a dramatic role in “The Girl on the Train,” fights a space alien in “Life,” and costars with Michael Fassbender in “The Snowman.” In short, she can do anything.
6. Michelle Yeoh. This Malaysian-born, ballet-trained Hong Kong martial arts star could go toe to toe with Jackie Chan in “Police Story 3” and Chow Yun Fat and Zhang Ziyi in Ang Lee’s Oscar-winning crossover hit “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” not to mention Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in “Tomorrow Never Dies.” At 54, she’s still making movies, from “Crouching Tiger” and “Mechanic” sequels to TV series “Marco Polo” and “Star Trek: Discovery.”
7. Kate Beckinsale. The British actress can act (see: “Love & Friendship”) as well as hold her own with Colin Farrell in “Total Recall” and fly through the air in black leather in the “Underworld” franchise.
8. Milla Jovovich. After Besson cast the Ukraine-born model in “The Fifth Element” and as Joan of Arc in “The Messenger,” she went on to star as “Ultraviolet” and anchor the long-running, lucrative and hugely violent “Resident Evil” (Sony’s Screen Gems) franchise. In January 2017, the sixth entry, “Final Chapter,” delivered $280.5 million internationally and $26 million domestic.
9. Zoe Saldana. She’s all set: She not only starred in Cameron’s “Avatar” and returns for many sequels, but Marvel franchise “Guardians of the Galaxy.”
10. Michelle Rodriguez. This tough but relatable action star emerged in Karyn Kusama’s “Girl Fight,” punched up the femme side of the “Fast and Furious” franchise, donned fatigues as a pilot in James Cameron’s “Avatar,” and starred in “Resident Evil,” TV’s “Lost,” “S.W.A.T.,” and “Battle: L.A.” Robert Rodriguez cast her in “Machete” and “Machete Kills,” and the upcoming “Alita: Battle Angel” for Cameron.
11. Sofia Boutella. The Algerian-born dancer popped in “Street Dance 2,” but her lethal scissor-kicking in “Kingsman: The Secret Service” led to “Star Trek Beyond” and the title role of “The Mummy,” in which she goes up against Tom Cruise.
12. Daisy Ridley. This androgynous warrior in the “Star Wars” reboot “The Force Awakens” will return in the sequel and is lining up roles, some action, some not (“Murder on the Orient Express”).
Ben John Medland/ABC
13. Maggie Q. The rising TV star (Besson’s “Nikita,” “Designated Survivor”) also high-kicked some fight scenes in “Mission: Impossible 3” and “Live Free or Die Hard.”
14. Cara Delevingne. Besson cast British “Suicide Squad” fashion model-turned-actress as the first female superhero from the comics of his youth in “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets,” where she trades stunts with Dane DeHaan. We’ll see if it’s a hit.