The 12 most badass action films with powerful female leads
Hollywood is finally moving closer to equality. The past few years have seen a growing number of films starring, written by and directed by women. There's still a lot of progress yet to be made, of course. But there's one area where women have been kicking butt and taking names for decades: action films. Ironically, action films are stereotyped as the launching pad of the manliest of manly men: Schwarzenegger, The Rock, Clint Eastwood, Sylvester Stallone and so on. But some of the biggest action hits, both critically and commercially, are led by women.
If you're looking to expand your home video library for the holidays or just searching for a great holiday playlist while taking out some healthy aggression, here are 12 of our all-time favorite films featuring strong women front and center.
Quentin Tarantino has a complicated relationship with some of his female actors, especially Uma Thurman, who criticized the director's disregard for her personal safety during the making of the Kill Bill films. But there's no denying Kill Bill Vol. 1 is a tour de force that brought QT back into Hollywood's good graces after the box office setback of Jackie Brown (another kickass female-led film, btw). The Bride's tale of revenge is riveting, violent and even funny at times. It's impossible not to look at, as Thurman leaves a bloody trail in her quest for justice against the evil Bill. The action peaks in an insane battle between The Bride and the Crazy 88 but the entire movie is a re-watchable blast from start to finish and will help kill the time until the dynamic duo reunites for Kill Bill 3!
Jennifer Lawrence is an Oscar winner and social media icon. But she first connected with mass audiences in her role as Katniss Everdeen. The entire Hunger Games trilogy was a smash hit but the first entry in the series remains our personal favorite. Not everything has aged perfectly since the film first premiered. While we love Josh Hutcherson in Future Man, he's a little short for a Stormtrooper, as another iconic female lead once famously said. Nonetheless, J-Law carries this film on her charisma and completely sells her journey from humble daughter to deadly revolutionary.
Brie Larson is one of most talented young actors in Hollywood today. So, when she signed up to join the Marvel Cinematic Universe, fans were understandably excited. And Captain Marvel did not disappoint. The film is already one of the most financially successful in the Marvel franchise and Larson's character Carol Danvers was able to seamlessly take a leading role in an already massive cast of proven winners. The movie was subject to some controversy because of Larson's outspoken advocacy on social issues and some of the ensuing backlash from vocal minorities on social media. Now that there's been enough time for that noise to pass, we're left with the movie itself to judge. And it's simply a blast. Larson has natural chemistry on-screen with Samuel L. Jackson that leads to plenty of laughs. Jude Law makes a compelling foil for Captain Marvel and the film is full of surprising and fun twists. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is stronger with Brie Larson in it and this is a film we'll be watching on repeat while we wait for the next installment.
The 1990 action thriller from director Luc Besson was ahead of its time both stylistically and, of course, in its story centered around Nikita. The story has been remixed, copied and redone so many times, we've lost count. But this one still has so much going for it. If you like Marvel's Black Widow, or pretty much any Angelina Jolie action film, you'll love this one. The less said the better, as its plot and incredible action sequences are better kept in all their surprising glory. That said, this one is a hard rated "R," so don't show it to your daughters or their friends until they are age-appropriate!
It's hard to properly explain just how influential Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was upon its release. But consider just some of its accomplishments: An international film that was both a box-office smash and an awards contender. These days, we're a bit more accustomed to our action and superhero films also being genuinely "good" films, but that was rarely the case when Crouching Tiger first premiered. It's revolutionary fighting "wire work" continues to influence action films nearly 20 years later and Michelle Yeoh has gone on to several leading roles in other Hollywood films and TV shows including Crazy Rich Asians, Star Trek: Discovery, and the forthcoming Avatar sequels with female action star pioneer James Cameron. It's all a circle, folks.
To most people, this is a Tom Cruise vehicle. But the real action star of the film is clearly co-star Emily Blunt. She's everything we've come to expect out of a typical Cruise role: confident, no-nonsense and ready for whatever the impossible mission requires. Their chemistry in this film is perfect, with Cruise playing off Blunt's mastery with his own anxious ticks, paranoia, chicanery and fear-driven choices. When Blunt's character Rita is forced to take Cruise's Cage under her wing, the sparks fly in a riveting, action-packed film that has a really unique and emotional story to boot. Rumors of a sequel and/or prequel (trust us, it's part of the film's charm) continue to circulate but this feels like more of a one-off gem for both Blunt and Cruise. We'd be first in line to see them pair up on the screen a second time, but only if Blunt stays in charge.
Wonder Woman is a great metaphor for the state of superhero movies. Marvel films are the dominant force and they are almost entirely centered around male characters. Then, along came this unexpected megahit from DC Comics starring Gal Gadot, who had previously made her mark in smaller supporting roles in films like the Fast and the Furious series. And Gadot is nothing short of a revelation as Wonder Woman, a film that rocked the box office and won over critics alike. Wonder Woman is a perfect bridge for women who are reluctant to watch superhero films and for guys who are hesitant to watch a film led by a strong woman. Diana is everything we want out of our heroes and she has a great supporting partner in Chris Pine's Steve Trevor. Director Patty Jenkins captures the action and emotional arcs in vivid colors and crisp action sequences. Wonder Woman truly raised the bar for women in superhero films and for the genre in general.
Oh, how time flies. It's only been four years since Star Wars returned to the big screen. And it's easy to forget what a big deal this film was. It shattered the domestic box office record and silenced most of the critics who thought the George Lucas prequel trilogy was a serious letdown. And the whole thing hinges on the performance of Daily Ridley's young Jedi in training, Rey. Yes, millions of us showed up to catch a glimpse of Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia and Han Solo back on the big screen, but director J.J. Abrams was clear this would be a story about the next generation of galaxy heroes and he didn't disappoint. Despite some backlash over whether Rey was "too strong" in the Force, this movie and its sequel The Last Jedi were both massive hits. And re-watching The Force Awakens is a reminder of what a journey Rey has already gone on before her trilogy is even complete.
The strongest of the non-Skywalker Star Wars film, Rogue One continues to grow in audience appreciation over time. Jyn Erso is a classic Star Wars character while also feeling entirely new. Her journey as a reluctant member of the nascent Rebel Alliance is highly relatable and emotionally satisfying. And unlike so many other prequels, Rogue One brilliantly queues up the original Star Wars trilogy in a surprising and heart-racing fashion. Rogue One is the most "adult" of the Star Wars films but never feels gloomy despite high stakes and ultimately tragic story. It's also one of the most re-watchable movies of the past decade and would make a fine addition to your home library. The Force is strong with this one.
And now we're in true action epic territory. Much like with Edge of Tomorrow, it's easy to mistakenly assume this is an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie. After all, his Terminator is all over the marketing and has become a timeless global icon. Arnie's T-800 is the only character to appear in all films, including the increasingly weak sauce sequels and spinoffs. But purists know there are really only two Terminator films and Linda Hamilton's Sarah Conner is the star of both. In the first film, Conner is a frightened woman on the run who discovers her inner strength through her comrade, savior and future lover Kyle Reese. It's a tender romance hidden in the confines of a action-horror masterpiece. By 1991, director and writer James Cameron decided to push the budget, story and female empowerment to an entirely new level. When we catch up with Sarah Conner she's a broken woman. No one believes her story about the futuristic killing machine out to destroy humanity, not even her young son, John. It's a set-up that is reminiscent of so many action films previously starring men. But the simple gender twist puts an entirely new meaning into the proceedings. In the same way that Conner learns to be tough in the first film, she rediscovers her vulnerability through her son John but not before kicking an extreme amount of ass along the way. Despite being very much a product of its time, Terminator 2 has aged nearly perfectly after almost three decades, something even the best of films can rarely say. The fact that this applies to a film heralded for its special effects, is even more surprising. And that's all because it's anchored in the incredible story of Sarah Conner. Arnold may "be back" but Sarah Conner isn't going anywhere.
Sigourney Weaver was nominated for an Academy Award for her performance as Ripley in the Alien sequel, also written and directed by James Cameron. Like Sarah Conner, Ripley has transformed physically but carries deep scars of emotional vulnerability. In its own powerful way, Aliens is a textbook guide to countering gender norms and sexism. Ripley is never judged for being a woman. She's judged for her personal capabilities and wow is Ripley ever capable. Aliens is a film that spawned a dozen catch-phrases and countless other signature visuals and plot elements that have been shameless copies by other filmmakers over the past 30+ years. If you've never seen Aliens, it might almost feel familiar because you've probably seen so many of its elements in lesser films that came later. But it's themes are timeless: corporate greed run amock and a hero standing alone in the face of doubt against seemingly insurmountable odds. The superior Director's Cut is over two and a half hours but rest-assured this isn't the Irishman. We challenge you to put on Aliens and see if you're able to stop before it's over. Some film critics prefer the original and we're here for Alien any time, anywhere. But put us in the camp of preferring the sequel when it comes to pure storytelling, that re-watchable factor and the sheer mastery of craft on display. It simply doesn't get better than this.
Nominated for 11 Academy Awards, this isn't just the best female-led action movie ever, it's one of the best films of the 21st century, period. The fact that it's the fourth entry in a loosely connected series of action films previously starring Mel Gibson is even more impressive. And let's not forget this film came out at a time when Tom Hardy was on top of the world. But anyone who sees Fury Road will quickly realize this film absolutely belongs to Charlize Theron and the band of "mothers" she's set out to protect from the radiation laden war boys who want to use them as baby factories to populate their dying world. On the surface, Fury Road is a two-hour action sequence, full of cars, guns and, yes, guitars with flame throwers on them. We're here for you, Duff. But it's almost a subtle and satisfying master class in feminism that breaks and reshapes so many cinematic tropes that it's nearly impossible to keep count. Fury Road is the kind of film that will be taught in universities for decades to come but can also be thrown on at any respectable midnight movie screening. It's the purest form of pop culture as art, commentary and cinema. It's a shame that it didn't take home the top prize for Best Picture but it's also obviously the one that will be remembered as the best movie of the year as it endures the test of time. An absolute classic and the perfect popcorn film with layers of depth for anyone looking for a great time (with great women) at the movies.
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