Photo: Female Action Movies
The action movie genre has long been dominated by men, but women in leading roles—as superheroes, assassins, and even everyday women who prove their mettle—have become more and more prevalent as the protagonists in these films. Such prevalence began in earnest in the ’70s: Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia holds her own in the original ‘Star Wars’ trilogy, Pam Grier came to prominence in action and blaxploitation films such as ‘Coffy’ and ‘Foxy Brown’, and Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley in the ‘Alien’ series is often credited for creating the female action hero and is considered one of the most important female film protagonists. From Ripley to Rey, here are 21 kickass movies with leading women to watch in 2021.
The Ultimate Guide to Female Action Movies:
Revenge is a Dish Best Served Cold
- One of the most iconic action revenge stories is undoubtedly ‘Kill Bill’, starring Uma Thurman as the Bride. After a group of assassins called the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad (Lucy Liu, Michael Madsen, Daryl Hannah, and Vivica A. Fox) and leader Bill (David Carradine) attack and leave the Bride for dead, no one is safe from her wrath. Stylish, brutal, and bloody, both ‘Kill Bill: Vol. 1’ and ‘Kill Bill: Vol. 2’ are classics.
- A stunning South Korean action revenge film with a deeply emotional center, ‘The Villainess’ stars Kim Ok-bin as Sook-hee, an assassin determined to avenge her father’s murder. When she’s captured by the police, an intelligence agency takes her, fakes her death, and promises her freedom and a new life in exchange for ten years of service. Director and screenwriter Jung Byung-gil was inspired by Luc Besson’s ‘La Femme Nikita’, and the film has also been compared to ‘Kill Bill’ and ‘John Wick’. With thrilling and vicious action sequences and heartfelt performances, ‘The Villainess’ is a film you won’t want to miss.
Sudden Fight for Survival
- Noomi Rapace stars as close protection officer Sam, who is based on one of the world’s leading female bodyguards, Jacquie Davis. Sam is assigned to protect heiress Zoe (Sophie Nélisse) after her father dies and leaves all the shares of his mining company to her, cutting out Zoe’s stepmother Rima (Indira Varma). When assassins target Zoe in Morocco, Sam takes her on the run and teaches her to fight for her life.
- Olga Kurylenko plays a motorcycle courier who becomes entangled in a plot to kill a key witness, Nick (Amit Shah), who saw international arms dealer Ezekiel Mannings (Gary Oldman) murder someone. When Nick and the unnamed courier are pinned down by dirty cops and mercenaries in a parking garage, the courier takes it upon herself to protect Nick, leading to brutally realistic fight scenes between her and the mercenaries. While the intercuts to Mannings’s house arrest featuring his vitriolic daughter aren’t the most engaging, the film is worth watching to see Kurylenko take down the bad guys one by one.
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- Ang Lee’s wuxia or “martial heroes” film ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ is not only one of the best movies of all time, but also hugely influential in the action genre. Starring Chow Yun-Fat, Michelle Yeoh, Zhang Ziyi, Chang Chen, and Cheng Pei-Pei, ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ is the story of ill-fated lovers, a stolen sword, and women warriors in eighteenth-century Qing dynasty China.
- The poetic and visually resplendent wuxia film ‘The Assassin’ stars Shu Qi as Nie Yinniang, a ninth-century assassin torn between love, family, and duty. Though you may have trouble comprehending the plot, ‘The Assassin’ is a must-watch film for its mesmerizing action scenes that feel like intricate dances and for its wholly Cinematic experience.
It’s a “Fate of the World” Type of Thing
- Sarah Connor’s (Linda Hamilton) transformation from a love interest in need of protection in ‘The Terminator’ to a ripped, gun-toting fighter by ‘Terminator 2: Judgment Day’ secures her place as one of the most iconic female action movie heroes. In this sequel to ‘The Terminator’, Sarah’s son John is the key to saving humanity from the machine uprising. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s T-800 Terminator is a good guy this time around, and he and Sarah protect John from a T-1000 Terminator sent to kill him.
- Aliens are invading Europe! Emily Blunt and Tom Cruise come to Earth’s rescue in ‘Edge of Tomorrow’, a sci-fi film with a ‘Groundhog Day’ premise. Major Cage (Cruise) is a media relations officer with no combat experience who is thrust onto the battlefield and promptly dies. But then he wakes up and his day starts over again. No-nonsense war hero Sergeant Vrataski (Blunt) trains Cage over many time loops to stop the next major alien attack.
- In this direct prequel to ‘Star Wars: A New Hope’, Felicity Jones plays Jyn Erso, the reluctant hero who agrees to help a Rebel Alliance team steal the plans to the Empire’s Death Star. This epic space opera is filled with all the splendor of blaster battles, Force-sensitive martial arts, and interstellar ship warfare that only a ‘Star Wars’ film can offer.
- When the crew of a commercial ship awaken early from cryosleep and answer a distress call, a creature bursts from an egg and latches onto one of the crewmember’s faces. Smart and fierce Ripley (Weaver) fights to survive, and in the process becomes a kickass icon as the star of the space horror ‘Alien’ franchise.
- Kate Beckinsale stars as Selene, a vampire “Death Dealer” who is a top-level assassin in the vampires’ war against the Lycans (werewolves). When the Lycans target human Michael (Scott Speedman), Selene fights to protect him. Known for ‘The Matrix’-like aesthetics and leather catsuits, this supernatural horror movie spawned a prequel and three sequels.
- Based on Capcom’s zombie horror video game series, ‘Resident Evil’ follows Alice (Milla Jovovich) and Rain (Michelle Rodriguez) as they lead a team to infiltrate a secret underground research facility and secure a viral outbreak that’s turning people into the Undead. With five sequels and a reboot in the works, the post-apocalyptic world of ‘Resident Evil’ will be reanimating for years to come.
Charlize Theron in Her Own Section
- Set during the Cold War in 1989, ‘Atomic Blonde’ stars Charlize Theron as Lorraine Broughton, an elite MI6 agent sent to Berlin on a mission to retrieve a list of double agents. Based on the graphic novel ‘The Coldest City’, this spy thriller boasts jaw-dropping action scenes, a plethora of neon and ’80s music, and Sofia Boutella and James McAvoy—maybe you really can have it all.
- In a post-apocalyptic wasteland, Imperator Furiosa (Theron) flees from a tyrannical ruler in an enormous war rig, taking the despot’s five prisoner wives with her. Furiosa strikes up an alliance with Max (Tom Hardy) as they attempt to outmaneuver the ruler’s army of sycophants in visually stunning car chases in the desert. Max may be the title character, but this is absolutely Furiosa’s film.
- Based on Greg Rucka’s comic book, the film follows a group of immortal warriors who’ve been helping people from the shadows for centuries. Andy (Theron) leads her team and new recruit Nile (KiKi Layne) against a pharmaceutical company intent on harnessing their regenerative abilities—at any cost. ‘The Old Guard’ is an instant favorite for its sleek action scenes and magnetic characters.
Blockbuster Superheroes and Anti-Heroes
- The first in the ‘Star Wars’ sequel trilogy, ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ introduced a host of new characters for the next generation of fans. Daisy Ridley shines as Rey, an orphaned young woman on the desert planet Jakku. When stormtrooper deserter Finn (John Boyega) crash lands on Jakku in search of a droid carrying a piece of a map to the missing Luke Skywalker, Rey quickly becomes integral to the Resistance’s fight against the First Order and to saving the galaxy.
- In the first female-led film from Marvel Studios, Brie Larson stars as an amnesiac and super-powered Kree soldier Vers. After being captured by enemy Skrulls, Vers escapes to Earth in the ’90s and starts to piece together her identity. Samuel L. Jackson brings hilarity and gravitas as Nick Fury, Jude Law makes a great interstellar antagonist, and Larson delivers an out-of-this-world performance as the most powerful hero in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
- The DC Extended Universe’s ‘Birds of Prey’ stars Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn, a psychiatrist who fell in love with the Joker and became a crazed supervillain. After the events of ‘Suicide Squad’ and their subsequent breakup, Harley Quinn is without the Joker’s protection in the crime world and must retrieve a diamond encoded with a rich family’s bank account number in order to save her life. The women-focused film also stars Rosie Perez, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jurnee Smollett, and Ella Jay Basco.
- When it came out in 2017, ‘Wonder Woman’ was an immediate game-changer for both the action and superhero movie genres, and was the first DC Extended Universe movie to feature a woman in the lead role. The film follows Amazon warrior Diana (Gal Gadot), who leaves her home of Themiscyra when American pilot Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crash lands on the island and tells of “the war to end all wars.” Diana resolves to save mankind from Ares, the god of war, and bring peace during World War I. The film’s message of hope, strength, love, and female empowerment resonated with audiences around the world.
Whether you’re rewatching an old favorite or finding a new one, you’re bound to have a great time kicking back while these awesome women kick ass.
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Claire L. Wong is a writer from the San Francisco Bay Area who strives to advance intelligent analysis, diversity, and compassionate storytelling in her work. She especially likes writing about science fiction, action, AAPI, and LGBTQ+ stories. She believes that visual storytelling through film and television increases the practice of empathy, which aligns with Hollywood Insider’s goal to use meaningful entertainment as a unifying tool. (she/her)