If the summer of 2017 has accomplished nothing else, it’s confirmed that women can kick some blockbuster ass just as well as the boys. Whether it be Charlize Theron’s 80’s action acrobatics in Atomic Blonde, Zoe Saldana’s continued butt kickery as Gamora, or the long overdue cinematic debut of Wonder Woman, this summer blockbuster season has been a big one for female-focused fight scenes. Obviously, this blockbuster season didn’t invent that trend. Don’t be ridiculous. It’s just been a long overdue coming out party.
During this summer of some top tier lady action heroics, we here at CGM decided it was time to honour the finest action heroines in the history of the face-punching genre. They may have been few and far between over the years, but when they connect, they endure. So, what better way could there possibly be to honour the rich history of women action heroes than with a Top Ten listicle? That’s a rare tribute that occurs far too rarely—especially on the Internet. Thankfully, we’re brave enough to do it (note: by “brave,” I mean, “not brave at all.” This is long overdue).
So without further ado please join us in a top ten countdown of the finest female action heroes to ever grace the silver screen. This list is definitive. All others are false. Trust us.
10) Alice (The Resident Evil Franchise, 2002-2017)
Ok, so perhaps the Resident Evil movies aren’t exactly high art. However, they are damn good trash. More importantly, they are damn good trash that has been led by an action heroine for no less than six movies. That’s pretty impressive and a case can be made that Milla Jovovich is one of the more underrated action stars of her era. The actress deserves a spot on the list all her own, but I decided to divvy this up by character so it makes sense to go with her most repeated role. Over 15 years, Jovovich’s Alice grew from a reluctant hero to a super-powered zombie-killing machine and it was the only element of the franchise that wasn’t hard to believe. Jovovich did it all with grace, humour, and enough badass attitude to level an entire army of zombies without a punch thrown (note: she threw plenty). The actress likely deserved a better franchise than this to show off her action chops (she would have been one hell of a Wonder Woman), but at least she elevated this series to glorious pulp for far longer than anyone else could have managed.
9) Samantha Caine/Charly Baltimore (The Long Kiss Goodnight, 1996)
Here’s a forgotten 90’s relic that deserves a little attention. Almost a decade before the Bourne movies, Geena Davis played a housewife named Samantha Caine who slowly learned that she was an amnesia-stuck assassin named Charly Baltimore (seriously, what a name!). In this glorious bit of pulpy nonsense written with snappy perfection by Shane Black and directed with lovably ludicrous style by Renny Harlin, Geena Davis proved she could be a dynamite action heroine and villain simultaneously. The Long Kiss Goodnight remains just as fresh, goofy, shocking, and gloriously insane today as it was in the mid-90s. It’s a shame the movie wasn’t successful enough for Davis to get a few more action flicks under her belt, because she was off to a hell of a start before Cutthroat Island cut that dream short. Still, at least we can savour this brilliant little noir/comedy/action epic with her doling out one-liners and face-punches.
8) Sarah Connor (Terminator 2: Judgement Day, 1991)
In the first Terminator movie Sarah Connor was mostly a victim running away from robo-Schwarzenegger. When it came time for part two, however, writer/director James Cameron decided to change it up. T2’s Sarah Connor trained herself to become a survival machine to protect her son (and saviour of humankind). Linda Hamilton had zero problems proving she could shoot guns, whoop butts, and protect the future of humanity with the best of them in a snarling yet empathetic performance that should have launched her career to a new level. Unfortunately, further action heroine opportunities never came, but at least Hamilton delivered one iconic mama saviour to be cherished. She even somehow proved to be an onscreen action match for Arnold Schwarzenegger in his prime. Not many performers could have pulled that off. God bless.
7) Furiosa (Mad Max: Fury Road, 2015)
Burned by an apocalyptic madman/rapist and determined to save the lives of innocent women in need, Furiosa was a blast of cold water to the face of macho action supremacy in the stunning Mad Max: Fury Road. Everyone expected the titular Max to be the hero, but as always, he only assumed that role reluctantly (ya know, just like the rest of the franchise). The true hero and heart of the film was the vengeance and compassion-fuelled Furiosa who proved to be a match for Max on every level, even with one robo-arm tied behind her back. The character was an instant pop culture icon and cosplay favourite, one strong enough that if George Miller ever decides to revive his marquee action apocalypse series again, there’s no way he can do it without her. Charlize Theron suddenly assumed the role of an action star exclusively thanks to this masterpiece and it’s hard to deny her that butt-kicking glory given her brilliant work here.
6) Trinity (The Matrix Trilogy, 1999-2003)
If you were around in 1999 to see The Matrix in the theatre, there’s no denying the impact of the opening sequence where Trinity introduced bullet time jump kicks to the cinematic lexicon and an icon was born. A powerful fighter and brilliant hacker who can save the world in skintight leather and high heels (no easy feat, people), Trinity burst off the screen and briefly made Carrie-Anne Moss a pop culture icon. Sure, the sequels sadly dulled the character and Moss’ career, but that masterpiece of a first film still exists and Moss’ portrayal of Trinity in it will be adored long after everyone born before the year 2000 is dead and buried.
5) Wonder Woman (Wonder Woman, 2017-????)
It took far too long for Wonder Woman to finally make it to the big screen, but thankfully the wait was worth it. Patty Jenkins’ WW1 epic combined all of the most beloved representations of Wonder Woman into a single glorious superhero fable, while Gal Gadot proved all haters wrong and nailed the role. The flick felt like something destined to be beloved for years after a single viewing and Gadot showed that she can keep this Wonder Woman game going for as long as she damn well pleases. It’s a shame there’s only one of these movies at the moment, but don’t worry Internet! I’ve got a feeling they’ll make another one of these quite soon. Call it a hunch!
4) Princess Leia/Rey (Star Wars, 1977-????)
Ok, so this is a bit of a cheat. However, there’s no way to do an action heroine list without acknowledging Carrie Fisher’s feisty and ground-breaking work in the genre. There’s also no way to deny that her character isn’t quite as badass as the boys in the holy trilogy, while Daisy Ridley’s Rey is poised to be a new Jedi icon for a generation. Still, it’s too early to praise Rey as one of the greats and too late to give Leia the top spot. So it makes the most sense to split the vote. None of the other characters on this list would likely exist without Leia and there’s a chance that Rey will one day rule them all. For now, these (likely) relatives share a spot in action movie history while a torch is being past between them.
3) Beatrix Kiddo/The Bride (Kill Bill Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, 2003-2004)
It seemed odd to cast Uma Thurman as the lead in an action movie fiesta back in the early 2000s, yet as all genre movie fans know: in Quentin we trust. Tarantino knew what he was doing. In Beatrix Kiddo/The Bride he created one of the great action movie heroes on the 21st century and in Thurman he found one hell of an action star. No action flick heroine has been responsible for such bloodshed and few have done it with such style. The Kill Bill movies are so deliciously violent, movie-drunk, and excessive that they can be too much for many viewers. However, no one can deny that The Bride stands high in the ranks of action heroines. Uma killed it and (spoiler alert) Bill for good measure.
2) Coffy (Coffy, 1973)
Coffy might be crude and rude to contemporary eyes given that it’s a down and dirty exploitation movie from a cinematic era with few rules. Yet, there’s no denying that Pam Grier is one of the most badass women to ever shotgun her way through a genre film and this is her most iconic role. A nurse who moonlights as a vigilante, Coffy cleaned up the streets her way and stuck fear into the heart of every evil man who dared to cross her path. We could use more remorselessly badass heroines like her in movies today. That would take another Pam Grier though, and sadly there’s only one of her. She broke the mould, spat on it, called it “sugar,” and then blasted all the bastard men who created the mould. That woman is an icon and Coffy is her finest hour.
1) Ellen Ripley (Aliens, 1986)
Most folks would list all of Ripley’s appearances in the Alien franchise for an article like this, but we know better. Sure, Ripley was a ground-breaking genre movie lead in every initial Alien entry. However, there was only one time that she was a full on action heroine. That’s in Aliens, one of the greatest action movies ever made. Sigourney Weaver grabbed her sci-fi guns and proved to be more powerful than the entire squad of marines that let her down. She did it with enough intelligence and talent to earn an Oscar nomination for her troubles, something that no other action movie star ever accomplished. There’s a reason: she’s a stone cold badass in the movie. Thanks to James Cameron’s characteristic aversion to subtlety, the feminist subtext of Aliens screeches off the screen louder than a chestburster—yet Weaver carries that weight with ease. Plus she got to deliver one of the all-time great action movie one-liners before dispatching that horrible Queen Alien once and for all. If that scene alone doesn’t deserve a top spot on this list, I don’t know what does.
Annnnnd just for fun, here are ten honourable mentions that just missed the cut:
- The Angels (Charlie’s Angels)
- Jen Yu/Yu Shu Lien (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon)
- Jessica Yang (Supercop)
- Leeloo (The Fifth Element)
- Lucy (Lucy)
- Mallory Kane (Haywire)
- Nikita (La Femme Nikita)
- Rita Rose Vrataski (Edge OF Tomorrow)
- Tank Girl (Tank Girl)
- Yuki Kashima (Lady Snowblood)