Top 8 Action Movie Heroines
Welcome, one and all, to the 8 Ball in the Movie Zone! I’m your host Jeremy Thomas and as always, we will be tackling a topic and providing you the top eight selections of that particular category. Keep in mind that this list is meant to be my personal opinion and not a definitive list. You’re free to disagree; you can even say my list is wrong, but stating that an opinion is “wrong” is just silly. With that in mind, let’s get right in to it!
At long last, Wonder Woman is nearly here! The latest film in the DC Extended Universe arrives on Friday and hopes to breathe life into the polarizing comic book cinematic universe. Wonder Woman is the first film in a long time to feature a female superhero in the lead role, and hopefully will be the first truly great one. (Reviews, as of this writing, are starting to come in and they are incredibly encouraging.) In honor of Diana’s solo film debut, this week we’re taking a look at the best action film heroines in movie history.
Caveat: The criteria for this one were fairly simple: we’re looking at female film characters — not the actor, but the character they portrayed — who have been great action heroes. I chose to focus purely on those characters who were originated (or at least whose incarnations were originated) in theaters, as opposed to characters who got their start on TV and moved to the big screen. This leaves out the likes of Zoe and River from Firefly/Serenity. It should be noted also that because we’re looking at the characters, some actresses who are pretty iconic action stars like Cynthia Rothrock and Zoe Bell were left off the list. While their action credentials are undeniable, their individual characters are often lost in the pack a bit. Finally, the word “heroine” is paramount here. There are quite a few villainous characters that may have made the list, but I wanted to look specifically at the more heroic ones.
Just Missing the Cut
• Yu Shu Lien (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon)
• Charly Baltimore (The Long Kiss Goodnight)
• Selene (Underworld franchise)
• Sasori (Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion)
• Foxy Brown (Foxy Brown)
#8: Nikita (La Femme Nikita)
You know that a character resonates with audiences when it receives not just a film remake, but two separate TV adaptations. Luc Besson’s La Femme Nikita did not garner the best reviews upon its initial release but has since come to be given its due as a fantastic action film. And most of that goes thanks to Anne Parillaud, who gives the character a real presence that helps carry the film. If you’ve seen any of the spin-offs, the story is basically the same: after an attempt to rob a pharmacy results in a dead police officer and a life sentence, young Nikita has her death faked by an intelligence agency (French in the original’s case, in keeping with the film’s national origin) and is trained to be an untraceable sleeper agent/assassin. Parillaud was able to capture not only the emotional vulnerability of the situation but also the cool, collected demeanor of an assassin.
Parillaud isn’t alone here though; the film is all around a fantastic piece of work. Luc Besson holds up his end as well as writer and director; he frames some intense and excellently-done action set pieces including a few badass gun fights that, as much as it tries, the also-enjoyable Point of No Return couldn’t quite capture the spirit of. Just look at the restaurant scene for a perfect example; Parillaud is a cool, collected customer when it’s time to do battle but when she has a moment to breathe you can see how traumatic it is for the character. That combination adds some real relatability to the character and, frankly, a touch of realism that goes a long way. It’s a great film and Nikita is certainly one of the best action heroines out there.
#7: Alice (Resident Evil franchise</i>)
In many ways, Alice can be considered the modern master of action heroines. Milla Jovovich is no stranger to the action genre; she’s handled it in everything from sci-fi (The Fifth Element) and period work (The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc) to action-thrillers (A Perfect Getaway) and more. Her most unforgettable character though has clearly been that of the protagonist of Paul W.S. Anderson’s adaptation of the survival horror franchise. There are a lot of things that you can criticize about this franchise, to be fair; the last few films were increasingly poor and the introduction of psychic powers muddied the character for a time. You can even take issue with the way certain game characters have been short-changed (see: Wong, Ada). But Milla was always a bright spot within the franchise and she’s done consistently great work both with the character and as an action star.
Jovovich helped redefine the action role for women as Alice. She doesn’t look like what the average female action star from the 1980s was; she’s pretty slight in stature and she has a rather delicate overall look to her. But get her on set and yell “action,” and action is exactly what she delivers. Alice made the Resident Evil franchise entertaining at times when there’s no way that it should have been and she consistently established chemistry with her co-stars. Seeing the progression of Alice is one of the few joys of the last several movies and whatever your opinion or mine about where the franchise ended up, it was a sad day for action to see Alice’s journey come to an end with The Final (until the already-in-development reboot) Chapter.
#6: Natasha Romanoff (Marvel Cinematic Universe)
While Alice helped redefine what an action heroine was, Black Widow was one of the characters who ran through that open door and took it to the next level. Scarlett Johansson set a new stage for her career when she took on the role of Natasha Romanoff and helped make her an absolutely integral part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Widow wasn’t shoved into the spotlight right away; she began more as a supporting character between her undercover work in Iron Man 2 and being a supporting role in The Avengers. Even then she was great, but she really took off when she was basically made a second lead in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Paired with Steve Rogers, Natasha proved to be an essential part of the film and staked her claim as being as significant of a character as any of the other heroes.
Since then, things have only gotten better for Widow in terms of her impact and watchability on the big screen. She had a great arc in Avengers: Age of Ultron and kicked some serious butt, then played a huge part in Captain America: Civil War. Part of why Natasha is such a great character is because she manages to hold her own amidst incredible heroes using science, magic, hypertechnology and more with just her spy skills and sharp mind. She doesn’t need a Super Soldier serum, Mark 47 armor, Asgardian blood or the like. She’s just a dangerous woman, both on the battlefield off, and things will likely go ever higher for her as the franchise continues.
#5: Furiosa (Mad Max: Fury Road)
Within the last several years of action films, I can’t think of someone who is more impossible to deny as an action heroine that Furiosa. George Miller’s film is called Mad Max: Fury Road, but Charlize Theron’s Imperator is undoubtedly the star of the glorious post-apocalyptic spectacle that helped but this franchise back on the map. Furiosa is a soldier under the villainous Immortan Joe who turns her back on her commander in order to try and give The Five Wives freedom from Joe’s grasp; she sets the plot in motion and is the driving force behind it happening.
There really aren’t enough good things you can say about Theron’s work here. She is 100% committed to the role in every frame, giving nobility and ferocity to the rebel. Furiosa defies many of the conventions of the genre; she’s tough and powerful but still feminine. She also overcomes more than many other action heroines; her mechanical left arm is cool, but it is also a disability that she doesn’t let hold her back. Furiosa is an inspiring, efficient, headstrong force of nature who elevates the already-outstanding Fury Road every moment she’s on the screen, and it’s no wonder that fans are just as excited for a Furiosa movie as they are another Mad Max.
#4: The Bride (Kill Bill)
The Bride, Beatrix Kiddo…call her what you want, as long as you call her one of the baddest chicks on the planet. Uma Thurman launched her action credentials through the moon when she took on this role in Quinton Tarantino’s two-part kung fu spaghetti western, playing a former assassin from the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad known as Black Mamba who is shot and left for dead when she tries to leave the titular Bill in order for a civilized life. Her family and fiancée are not as lucky as her and are left for dead, meaning that when The Bride wakes up from her four-year coma she has a lot of revenge to make up for.
Tarantino framed this film around Thurman’s character and while the performance cannot be called nuanced, it is exactly what is needed for an action film of this style. She is completely game for all sorts of action techniques as she wields any number of weapons (a kitchen knife, a shotgun, a katana, her own fists and fingers) on her bloody path of vengeance through her former fellow Vipers toward Bill, who she ultimately finishes off with the Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique that she learned from the one and only Pai Mei. Thurman oozes cool and attitude here, delivering lines with a style that is just this side of over the top. Tarantino’s film of course has a variety of other female action stars too, and had this I given villains a chance, O-Ren Ishii would have easily made the list. Either way, the Bride slices her way to #4 with a literal vengeance.
#3: Leia Organa (Star Wars franchise)
All hail the general. Leia Organa is, without question, one of the most iconic action heroines of all-time. The late, great Carrie Fisher gave life to one of the first true heroines here, taking George Lucas’ words and adding her own fire to create a character who stood just as tall as (or taller than) her allies. Leia starts off as a Princess of Alderaan, but she’s not the kind of princess we’re used to. Lucas’ tale begins in the classic style of the young hero set on a journey to rescue the princess, to be sure. But as we learn the second Luke steps into Leia’s cell, she’s by no means a damsel in distress and she very quickly takes control of the situation, taking aim at Stormtroopers and thinking on her feet to get them out of the prison wing and off the Death Star.
And so it continued all the way through the franchise, as Fisher subverted every trope she could get her hands on. She matches wits with the charming rogue in Han Solo, turns her second captivity into an opportunity to murder a Hutt and forges her own path (as much as anyone does in a series about destiny, at least) with each film that she appears in. By the time of The Force Awakens, she’s earned the rank of General and proves to be as apt of a tactician as she is a blaster rifle operator. Fisher set the stage for many others to follow in her wake and her final appearance in the upcoming Stars: The Last Jedi will surely be a moment for the ages.
#2: Sarah Connor (The Terminator franchise)
Look at that image up there. Seriously, just look at it. Just based on that first scene of hers in Terminator 2: Judgment Day, it was easy to immediately see that Linda Hamilton was going to propel her way into action heroine stardom. When we first saw Sarah Connor, she was just a waitress who happened to be the future mother of humanity’s savior. After the traumatizing events in that film and her newly-obtained knowledge of the future, Sarah went around the bend a little (and understandably). The way James Cameron filmed this scene was a thing of genius. The second that we see her in an insane asylum doing pull-ups and taunting poor Dr. Silberman broken limbs, we instantly know that this is a character that has become much more formidable in the decade since the first film.
And let’s not beat around the bush here; Sarah Connor is a paranoid woman by the time of T2. But really, can anyone blame her? And it doesn’t stop her from trying to do everything in her power to protect her son. And that’s something that’s kind of special about Sarah. One might think that she’s focused entirely on the mission, the need for young John Connor to grow up and be the savior of humanity. That’s not an unfair assumption to make. However, when you see Sarah with her son, it is clear that she isn’t doing this for mankind: she is doing this because her son is in danger from an unbelievable source. This isn’t a man in a female’s body the way that some action heroines have been; this is a woman who has a son and is willing to do anything to protect him. Along the way she proves to be one of the toughest, most bad-ass women ever committed to film and it is Hamilton’s performance which makes us believe that. Emilia Clarke’s performance as Sarah in Terminator: Genisys may not have been quite as good, but it still held up pretty nicely in an otherwise problematic film.
#1: Ellen Ripley (Alien franchise)
Some lists are tough to figure out the ranking for. For this one, #1 at least was a complete no-brainer for me. No one character has done more in terms of action roles than Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley in the Alien franchise. She’s just about got it all; even before she’s a bad-ass who can fire an M41A pulse rifle, she has the characteristics needed to become that bad-ass. She’s confident and able to take charge when she needs to be, but she’s never a hard, emotionless shell of a human being. She cares deeply about her crew in the first film but she has the nerves of steel needed to do what it takes to put the Xenomorph out into space. And then in Aliens she shows that not only is she just as tough as all the Colonial Marines, she is also capable of looking out for little Newt like a mother would. Much like Sarah Connor, she is a strong woman without needing to bury her maternal instincts. Her strength comes from her gender, not in spite of it.
And of course, this was the template from which all action heroines were cast. Every woman who has ever picked up a gun in a film (with the exception of Pam Grier and her contemporaries) owes a debt to Weaver and to Ellen Ripley. She is by far the most influential and, indeed, the best action heroine of all time.
And that will do it for us this week! Join me next week for another edition of the 8-Ball! Until then, have a good week and don’t forget to read the many other great columns, news articles and more here at 411mania.com! JT out.