There’s yet another “Charlie’s Angels” movie out in theaters, starring an entirely new trio of young actresses. Directed by Elizabeth Banks, who also wrote the screenplay, this third installment in the film series — a continuation of the story that began with the 1970s television show — stars Kristen Stewart, Naomi Scott, and Ella Balinska as the new generation of Angels who are working for a private detective agency.
To celebrate the return of the franchise, here are 10 of the most unforgettable, badass action movie heroines. From Foxy Brown to Ilsa Faust in the “Mission Impossible” movies, and Leeloo in “The Fifth Element” and Diana in “Wonder Woman,” there are plenty of well-drawn female action protagonists with agency. Alas, there can only be 10, and this is only a single opinion.
10 – Lori “China” O’Brien in the “China O’Brien” franchise
Really, any Cynthia Rothrock character will do. She holds black belt rankings in seven styles of martial arts and competed at a high level before becoming an actress. The experience brought an authenticity to her performances. In “China O’Brien” — a B-grade 1988 action movie — she’s literally the ultimate weapon, playing a martial-arts-trained police officer who finds herself running for sheriff after her father (David Blackwell) is killed by a local kingpin (Steven Kerby). As the long arm of the law, China O’Brien avenges her father’s death. The film was followed by a sequel. These were two of the movies Rothrock made with Hong Kong studio Golden Harvest, when she was at the prime of her career.
9 – The women of Wakanda in “Black Panther”
Director Ryan Coogler’s superhero movie is bolstered by a spectacular supporting cast of women characters, from the stately Queen Ramonda to the fierce fighters of the Dora Milaje. It was an important creative choice for Coogler, who could have easily brushed the secondary characters aside to focus solely on the conflict between the Black Panther and Killmonger. The movie’s strong female presence is led by Lupita Nyong’o as strong-willed Nakia, Danai Gurira as fearsome warrior Okoye, and Letitia Wright as T’Challa’s brilliant younger sister, Shuri, the brains of the operation behind Wakanda’s world-leading technological advancements.
8 – Cleopatra Jones in the “Cleopatra Jones” series
Played by the statuesque Tamara Dobson, the blaxploitation action film depicted a new type of black female presence in mainstream American movies. Her character was a sort of antithesis to the more “phallic heroines” of the time, like those played by fellow blaxploitation star Pam Grier. Dobson insisted on not making her sexuality a focus and avoided nude scenes in a deliberate effort to separate herself from the hypersexuality of other black heroines of the era. It’s also noteworthy for an incredible five-minute car chase sequence that rivals others of its time. No digital effects; just real people, real cars, and real stunts. A black woman controls the steering wheel, and laughs with confidence on her way to victory. The franchise includes two films, including the 1975 sequel, “Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold.”
7 – Imperator Furiosa in “Mad Max: Fury Road”
Charlize Theron stars as the one-armed female protagonist in “Mad Max: Fury Road,” playing the most fearless heroine ever to drive a War Rig. The true hero in the film isn’t a man with bulging biceps, but a group of tough-as-nails, leather-clad women led by Furiosa. Her name says all in George Miller’s fourth installment of the “Mad Max” franchise which is bursting with feminine grit and power. Miller was so determined to authentically present the female perspective that he hired Eve Ensler, author of “The Vagina Monologues,” to coach the actresses on how to express their trauma. Though Mad Max comes along for the ride, Furiosa is the film’s gravitational center.
6 – The Bride in the “Kill Bill” series
Uma Thurman plays Beatrix “The Bride” Kiddo (codename: Black Mamba) in the two-part “Kill Bill” series directed by Quentin Tarantino. “The Bride” is a former member of an elite, shadowy group of assassins called the “Deadly Viper Assassination Squad.” The organization’s name should speak for itself. “The Bride” is formidable and ruthless, and trained under martial arts master Pai Mei (Gordon Liu) before serving at the right hand of Bill (David Carradine), her boss and lover. Kiddo, a master of the Hung Gar style of kung fu, is the only Viper to learn the “Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique,” the deadliest blow in all of martial arts. It’s an assassination method of killing a person by quickly striking five pressure points around the heart with the fingertips. After the victim takes five steps, the heart explodes and they fall dead. Of course she uses it, but only when most necessary.
5 – Nikita in “La Femme Nikita”
Anne Parillaud stars as the title character in Luc Besson’s 1990 action thriller that has several immitators, including remakes in Hong Kong and the US, as well as a TV series in Canada and the US. Nikita is a teenage girl who is sentenced to life in prison after she robs a pharmacy and murders a policeman. While locked up, her captors fake her death and she is given a choice: Become an assassin, or die. After intense training, she becomes a smooth, stylish and very skilled killer until a mission in an embassy goes awry. Besson helped break the commercial taboo against female-driven action movies with this seminal, seductively slick film. Parrilaud thrillingly embodies the term “femme fatale,” playing a young woman who blossoms while carrying out cold-blooded murders.
4 – Yuki Kashima in “Lady Snowblood” (“Shurayukihime”)
Meiko Kaji stuns as the title character (aka Yuki Kashima) in Toshiya Fujita’s 1973 Japanese action film based on the manga series of the same name. The story follows Yuki, a woman who seeks vengeance upon three people who raped her mother and killed her father and brother. Raised by a priest who teaches her how to use a sword and trains her to show no mercy on the men who brutalized her family, Yuki’s taste for revenge, hidden by her beautiful, tranquil exterior, is powerful and bloody. The film spawned one sequel, “Love Song of Vengeance” (1974); a 2001 sci-fi remake, “The Princess Blade,” stars Yumiko Shaku. “Lady Snowblood” was a major inspiration for another character on this list – “The Bride” in Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill.”
3 – Trinity in the “Matrix” franchise.
Carrie-Anne Moss plays the sophisticated computer hacker who’s surgical with martial arts skills, firearms, and other weapons. A Zion operative, she is first mate on Morpheus’ Nebuchadnezzar and serves as a go-between for him and the individuals he wishes to free from the Matrix. As the series progresses, so does her relationship with Neo, which proves decisive in the outcome of the series. How powerful is Trinity? A kiss from her brings a seemingly dead Neo back to life. Moss will return to reprise her role as Trinity in an upcoming fourth “Matrix” film, despite her character’s death in “The Matrix Revolutions.”
2 – Ellen Ripley in the “Alien” franchise
Sigourney Weaver played the character throughout the film series, which earned her world recognition, and the role remains her most famous to date. She represented an important flip from the standard male action hero to a heroine, especially in the first movie, “Alien” (1979), and also in “Aliens” (1986), challenging gender roles, particularly in the science fiction, action and horror genres. “Aliens” earned Weaver her first Academy Award nomination for Best Actress, itself also a landmark moment since the Academy had given little prior recognition to the genre. One of the most significant female protagonists in cinema, Ripley’s influence extends beyond that of the original film franchise; she has appeared in novels, comic books, and video games.
1 – Sarah Connor in the “Terminator” franchise
The OG action-movie heroine. The character has been played by three different actresses on the big and small screens: Linda Hamilton in “The Terminator” (1984), “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” (1991), and “Terminator: Dark Fate” (2019); Emilia Clarke in “Terminator Genisys” (2015); and Lena Headey in the television series “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles” (2008–2009). A hardened warrior and mother who sacrificed everything for her son’s future, she is determined to take control of her own destiny, regardless of the timeline in which she exists. It’s still rare to have a leading lady be as tough, resolute, charismatic, and combat ready, especially in high-profile projects. Linda Hamilton’s embodiment of the character is easily the most memorable of the trio.
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