It seems like you can’t go a few weeks online without someone doing an article on the dearth of female-fronted action movies, or the preconceived notion that action films with female leads don’t do well at the box office, or something about Rocket Racoon getting to the big screen before Wonder Woman. We’re not going to do that here, because that’s boring and overplayed. To be honest, we just want to talk about how great Michelle Yeoh is.
Instead, here’s a completely scientific and one hundred percent accurate list of the best female action stars in the history of modern cinema. I’m taking into account the amount of “proper” action films they’ve been in, how good those films are, and the individual performances of the actress and how convincingly badass she is in the film. The methodology produces some surprising results and your feedback is welcomed, but anything that gets people watching more Cynthia Rothrock and Maggie Cheung films is always worthwhile.
Honorable Mention: Jennifer Lawrence
Ok, so I’m saying this now, because it’ll come up in the comments. I don’t consider The Hunger Games action films so J-Law doesn’t get a place on this list. They’re good films and she’s the best thing in them, but I don’t really think of them as action films in the same way I don’t really think of Star Wars or CGI-heavy superhero movies as action films – at least not in the tradition Commando/Die Hard/Lethal Weapon mode. Feel free to disagree.
She can definitely be a badass – let alone Katniss Everdeen, check out Winter’s Bone where she basically plays Marv from Sin City in a teenage girl’s body – but she’s not made a straight action film. Yet. If it were up to me, next time Hollywood tries to reboot Donald Westlake’s Parker novels I’d cast Lawrence as a gender-swapped version of the character. (She probably won’t do that though. She’ll probably keep making Oscar winning films with acclaimed directors. But that’s her loss.).
25. Milla Jovovich
Key Films: Ultraviolet, the Resident Evil films (sigh)
I’m somewhat loathe to include Jovovich, if I’m honest. The success of the Resident Evil films is often pointed out as successful female-lead action films, and that’s a good thing in theory, but man, those movies are just horrid. They figure the idea of a supermodel in a cocktail dress shooting zombies is enough to cover the unfollowable mess of CGI and nonsensical post-apocalyptic ramblings.
She pips Kate Beckinsale (star of the equally awful Underworld films) to the bottom spot by virtue of the third act of The Fifth Element and also by appearing in Kurt Wimmer’s Ultraviolet, which isn’t ‘good’ per se but at least includes some of the gun-fu madness he brought to the underrated Equilibrium.
24. Rhona Mitra
Key Films: Doomsday
Rhona Mitra first snared nerd affection with the dubious honor of being the “real life” Lara Croft in the 90s – i.e. the unfortunate actress who donned the costume for appearances at conventions and photoshoots. She also stood in for Kate Beckinsale for one of those god-awful Underworld movies. The main source of my love for Mitra though comes from Neil Marshall’s bonkers post-apocalyptic flick Doomsday, which basically just takes every 80s genre movie Marshall liked and mashes them together in some sort of not entirely successful, but very delicious, stew. Mitra plays a female Snake Plissken, but with a special robot eye under her eye patch that she can take out and use to see around corners. She then ends up fighting a medieval Malcolm McDowell, and apocalyptic savages who listen to Frankie Goes To Hollywood. Marvellous.
23. Sharni Vinson
Key Films: You’re Next, Bait
Ok, this is just a speculative one to be honest, but bear with me. Australian born Vinson is basically just waiting to be cast in some mid-budget exploitation flick. You probably saw her last year in Adam Wingard’s fantastic You’re Next, where she went from scream queen to unstoppable survivalist killer at the drop of a hat and turned the film into an ultraviolent remake of Home Alone. She also proved she’s got the physicality for action roles in the fantastic (no, really) Step Up 3, and even defended a flooded supermarket from a shark in the delightfully insane Bait. Seriously, someone give Luc Besson this girl’s number.
22. Brigitte Nielsen
Key Films: Red Sonja, Rocky IV, Beverly Hills Cop 2
Six foot Dane Brigitte Nielsen hit the ground running with her debut role as Red Sonja, the sword wielding siren from Conan creator Robert E. Howard, who was basically, well, a female Conan. Arnie even reprised his role as the original clobbering Cimmerian in the film. After roles in other notable 80s action texts like Cobra, Rocky IV and Beverly Hills Cop 2, she faded into B-movie purgatory and eventually reality TV hell. She’s back, however, in this year’s Mercenaries, an all-female Expendables knock-off from The Asylum alongside Kristanna Loken, Vivica A. Fox, Cynthia Rothrock and Zoë Bell. It looks… okay.
21. Sigourney Weaver
Key Films: Alien films
Why so low? Because really and truly she’s only ever starred in one true action film. Alien is a straight horror movie that happens to be in space, Alien 2 is a surrealist religious head trip, and Alien: Resurrection is just a mess. Sigourney totally kills it in James Cameron’s big space marine shoot-em-up, but that’s only one entry in her whole filmography. I considered not even including her, but decided against leaving out probably the most iconic female badass in Western cinema. However, when you compare her body of work to some of the others on this list, she objectively can’t really go any higher…
20. Uma Thurman
Key Films: Kill Bill Vols 1 & 2
Uma Thurman’s action credentials only really come down to one thing: Kill Bill. Sure, she’s been in a handful of other stuff (The Avengers, Paycheck, er, Batman & Robin), but none of those are anything to write home about. Yet Kill Bill is such a kaleidoscope of different influences and sub-genres that in just that one (two?) film she managed to star in an incredible samurai movie, wuxia film, Spaghetti Western and modern day martial arts flick all at the same time.
19. Linda Hamilton
Key Films: Terminator 2, Black Moon Rising, Dante’s Peak
In the first Terminator, Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor is little more than a damsel in distress. So it’s a testament to just how damn good Terminator 2 is that it flips her role completely. In the same way that Arnie took a 180-degree going from villain to hero, Hamilton goes from scream queen to badass. The Connor of Terminator 2 is quite possibly the greatest flawed heroine in the history of cinema – she’s tough dangerous, clever but also deeply scarred. And underneath all this she’s ultimately motivated by being a mother. It’s the role Hamilton was born to play, but sadly she hasn’t really transferred that action persona into that many other films. She’s definitely been in some fun stuff, like Dante’s Peak, Black Moon Rising, King Kong Lives and an Asylum movie about a giant squid. She’s loads better than Kristanna Loken, anyway.
18. Devon Aoki
Key Films: 2 Fast 2 Furious, DOA: Dead Or Alive, Sin City
The daughter of a legendary Japanese wrestler and sister of EDM superstar Steve Aoki, the striking former model made memorable appearances in a host of genre movies in the early 2000s. She was in 2 Fast 2 Furious, the batshit crazy videogame adaptation DOA: Dead Or Alive, and appeared alongside Jet Li and The Stath in (the admittedly rather dull) War. She was also great as the silent killer Miho in Sin City. She hasn’t been in anything since 2009 though, choosing to focus instead on raising her family. A rumoured role in Arrow never came to anything, but it would be great to see her pop up in a Fast & Furious sequel, as it seems everyone comes back to those films eventually.
17. Lucy Liu
Key Films: Kill Bill Vol. 1, The Man With The Iron Fists, Charlie’s Angels
Lucy Liu has balanced roles of a reasonable profile with a lot of fun performances in a bunch of action flicks. The most high profile is obviously Charlie’s Angels, a strangely brilliantly unrefined crystallisation of McG’s id that critics hate for some reason, but she also made adequate foil for Jackie Chan in Shanghai Noon, was a great evil dominatrix in Payback, a Yakuza boss in Kill Bill and a fighting Madam in RZA’s underrated Shaw Brothers homage The Man With The Iron Fists. We won’t mention Ballistic: Ecks vs Sever though.
16. Zhang Ziyi
Key films: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hero, The Grandmaster, House Of Flying Daggers
After being plucked from obscurity for Zhang Yimou’s critically acclaimed The Road Home, the young Zhang Ziyi was offered one of the three main leads (alongside Hong Kong action all-stars Chow Yun Fat and Michelle Yeoh) in Ang Lee’s arthouse kung fu epic Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. After that film’s crossover success, she became the go-to-girl for any respectable Chinese director wanting to make an accessible martial arts flicks – appearing in Yimou’s Hero and House Of Flying Daggers, Wong Kar-wai’s The Grandmaster and even John Woo’s upcoming The Crossing. She was also a villainess in Rush Hour 2, but she lost a fight to Chris Tucker in that.
15. Maggie Q
Key Films: Mission: Impossible III, Live Free Or Die Hard, Nikita (TV series)
Born in Hawaii to the less cool-sounding real name of Margaret Denise Quigley, an international modelling career led to Maggie Q making a name for herself in late-period Hong Kong action films like Gen-Y Cops, and the, er, delightful sounding Naked Weapon. After coming back to the States she’s established herself as a dependable female badass, appearing in supporting roles in Mission: Impossible III, Die Hard 4 and the Divergent series, as well as snagging the lead in the rebooted Nikita TV series (based on Luc Besson’s 1990 classic). She’s the sort of B-level actor who’s never going to star in anything bigger but it’s always fun to see her turn up in things.
14. Angelina Jolie
Key Films: Tomb Raider series, Salt, Wanted
Angelina Jolie is essentially the female version of one of those big Hollywood stars, like Ben Affleck or Will Smith, who’ve made plenty of big budget action romps, but their defining works are far away from the genre. It’s a type of filmmaking that’s slowly going away as superhero movies without big names make more money than star vehicles, which is a shame as Jolie is rather good at it. She’s never truly made a classic – her action vehicles are competent but forgettable (the Tomb Raider films, Salt), or occasionally interesting but ropey (Wanted), but she’s an old school, capital-M Movie Star who is easily capable of carrying whatever old claptrap she’s thrown into.
Interesting aside: her interchangeable love interests in the Tomb Raider films are Daniel Craig (Lara Croft: Tomb Raider) and Gerard Butler (Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life). It’s nice to see a female-lead series where the woman hero gets to work her way through a parade of gender-swapped “Bond Girls.”
13. Meiko Kaji
Key Films: The Lady Snowblood series, the Female Convict Scorpion series, the Stray Cat Rock series
Kaji is an icon of Japanese cult cinema whom you could lazily describe as the Pam Grier of the East (though that would not be inaccurate). She spent the 70s starring in a string of sleazy exploitation classics, most notably period revenge flick Lady Snowblood (a massive influence on Kill Bill), as well as the “nasty women in prison” series Female Convict Scorpion and the sexy outlaw biker saga Stray Cat Rock. Also a successful singer, you might recognise her singing voice from the Kill Bill soundtrack as well.
12. Kelly Hu
Key Films: The Scorpion King, Cradle 2 The Grave, Martial Law (TV series)
Another one who’s sadly fallen off the radar a bit (probably due to Hollywood’s habit of forgetting women over forty exist). Hu first came to attention in the late 90s on Martial Law, the beloved (by me at least) Channel 5 show starring Hong Kong kung fu legend Sammo Hung as a fish out of water Chinese cop in the US.
Demonstrating that she could legitimately fight a bit, it wasn’t a surprise when she got roles in some pretty decent action movies in the early 2000s, including the joint Jet Li/ DMX film Cradle 2 The Grave, opposite The Rock in The Scorpion King, and as Lady Deathstrike in X-Men 2. She quickly faded back to TV, including a recurring role in Arrow, but it would be great to see her appear in that female version of The Expendables that keeps getting touted.
11. Ronda Rousey
Key Films: The Expendables 3
The first woman ever to be signed by UFC (though they obviously signed another one straight away so she had someone to fight), Rousey made her film debut this year in the third Expendables film. While it wasn’t the biggest role, she was easily the most impressive of the new Expendables introduced in the movie (compare and contrast her to boxer Victor Ortiz, the other real-life fighter in the film, who was a complete non-entity). She’s already shot a part in the upcoming Fast & Furious 7, and has also got a starring vehicle currently known as The Athena Project coming up. Expect big things from this girl.
10. JeeJa Yanin
Key Films: Chocolate, Raging Phoenix
Back in the mid 2000s when, Ong-bak first hit, Thailand was briefly the most exciting film industry for fans of crazy cult Asian cinema. One of the most interesting talents to arrive out of the period was young JeeJa Yanin, whose debut Chocolate (helmed by Ong-bak director Prachya Pinkaew) saw her play a nearly mute autistic teenage girl who was also an unstoppable Muay Thai badass. The incredible fights, alongside its borderline insensitive premise, got her international attention, and she’s made a string of great Thai films since (including last years’ Tom Yum Goong 2 with Jaa).
9. Maggie Cheung
Key Films: The Heroic Trio, Executioners, Moon Warriors, Ashes Of Time
A former Miss World contestant, Maggie Cheung’s early career was defined by damsel in distress roles (she’s particularly annoying as Jackie Chan’s girlfriend in the first few Police Story films). But she singles out working with the great Wong Kar-wai on his debut As Tears Go By as revitalising her career, and she went on to work with the likes of Olivier Assayas, Quentin Tarantino and Wayne Wang. More importantly, despite having no martial arts training, she proved herself to be one of the top female leads of the golden age of Hong Kong action cinema. Key films to seek out are the incredible superhero adventure The Heroic Trio where she holds her own against Michelle Yeoh and Anita Mui, and Wong Kar-wai’s beautiful, arty wuxia movie Ashes Of Time.
8. Zoe Saldana
Key Films: Colombiana, The Losers
Here’s how you can tell someone is a true action star. If you throw enough CGI, crazy costumes and nerd in-jokes, most actors will look cool in a big franchise movie. And yeah, Zoe Saldana is great in Star Trek and Guardians Of The Galaxy (shame she doesn’t have anything to do in Star Trek Into Darkness, but whatever). But can they still pull it off with just a machine gun, a ropey plot and a not so enormous budget? Saldana does in both The Losers and Colombiana, and proves she’s a cut above the Beckinsales and Jovovichs of the world.
7. Scarlett Johansson
Key Films: The Avengers, Lucy
The gap between an action star and a regular Hollywood movie star is an interesting one. Some people – Bruce Willis, Mel Gibson – can straddle it with ease. But for every Liam Neeson, there’s Owen Wilson in Behind Enemy Lines or Adrian Brody in Predators. In the same way that you wouldn’t cast Steven Seagal in a period drama, just because someone’s a great actor it doesn’t mean they can carry an action film.
This is what’s made Scar-Jo’s recent career turn so fascinating. She’s a cool, beautiful indie starlet who makes films with Sofia Coppola and Woody Allen, and records an album of Tom Waits covers. In The Avengers she was the one that didn’t have a cool costume or back-story. She was just a Russian spy, but somehow (partly down to her great first scene) she managed to convey that she could take any of the team out. And then in this summer’s Lucy, the most demented mainstream action flick since Crank, she managed to anchor the craziness of the whole thing, looking like a girl who’s completely in control of the whole thing while Oldboy’s goons shoot at her and Morgan Freeman preaches gibberish science. Forget a Black Widow movie; I want her in a full-on remake of Death Wish 3 where she just goes around blowing everyone up.
6. Zoë Bell
Key Films: Death Proof, Raze
This veteran Kiwi stuntwoman came to fame when Quentin Tarantino cast her as herself in his arty car chase serial killer throwback Death Proof. That film is – well let’s just call it uneven, but when it reached the finale and she was hanging onto the bonnet of a speeding Dodge Charger, for reals, it was clear a new star was made. To be honest, she’s a genuinely terrible actress but her legit tough-girl image definitely gives her enough screen presence and she’s since popped up in memorable roles in Oblivion, Hansel And Gretel: Witch Hunters and Django Unchained. She even had a first leading role in last year’s women’s prison fighting movie Raze, and while it was nothing to write home about it’s nice to see her getting her props.
5. Gina Carano
Key Films: Fast & Furious 6, Haywire
The great hope of female action stars. Impressed with her MMA fights, none other than Steven Soderbergh picked her to appear in her own starring vehicle Haywire (not unlike what he previously did with notorious porn star Sasha Grey). Putting the novice Carano up against Michael Fassbender, Ewan McGregor and Michael Douglas didn’t really do her acting any favours, but her brutal armbars and takedowns were a breath of fresh air compared to Hollywood starlets struggling through sloppy choreography. From that she bagged a role in Fast & Furious 6, which gave us a Carano vs. Michelle Rodriguez fight which was as awesome as it sounds. At the very least she now seems to have a solid career in DTV action films ahead.
4. Michelle Rodriguez
Key Films: The Fast & Furious series, S.W.A.T., Avatar, Battle: Los Angeles
Always the bridesmaid, never the bride, or maybe always the tough female sidekick, never the hero, Michelle Rodriguez has barely had a leading role since her breakthrough in indie boxing drama Girlfight. But she’s one of those faces you’re always happy to see turn up in genre movies. Her biggest action cred comes from the Fast & Furious, but she’s also done her ever-enjoyable tough-ass Latino chick schtick in S.W.A.T., Avatar, Battle: Los Angeles and a couple of those bloody Resident Evil films. She was also in Machete, the film which gave that other Latin badass icon Danny Trejo his much deserved first leading role. Let’s hope someone gives her another crack at a leading performance soon.
3. Pam Grier
Key Films: Coffy, Foxy Brown, Above The Law, Bucktown, Ghosts Of Mars
Probably the single toughest woman ever to appear on screen, Grier was originally discovered by exploitation impresario Jack Hill, who cast her sleazy shot-in-the-Philippines women in prison quickies like The Big Doll House and The Big Bird Cage. She’s of course best known for leading roles in classic Blaxploitation flicks, most famously Foxy Brown and Coffy, both directed by Hill. While not actually related, she essentially plays the same character in both, a badass woman who takes on the mob in order to get revenge for slain loved ones.
After the blaxploitation boom died down Grier was still a popular face in genre films, including playing a bounty hunter in pre-Terminator Canadian killer cyborg movie The Vindicator and a recurring role in Miami Vice, before getting much deserved parts in proper decent budget action flicks, like Seagal’s Above The Law and John Carpenter’s Ghosts Of Mars.
2. Cynthia Rothrock
Key Films: Yes, Madam, The Inspector Wears Skirts, Tiger Claws, China O’Brien
A familiar face to those who stalked the action sections of their local video store in the late 80s and early 90s. Often maligned because she rarely moved out of the cheapie straight to video arena, she’s arguably the best Western on-screen martial artist of that era, often putting the likes of Van Damme and Seagal to shame. While the China O’Brien series and the like are a hell of a lot of fun, her greatest work came in Hong Kong, where she’s just about the only American actor to become a genuine star over there, and the film she made with Michelle Yeoh (the ludicrously titled Yes, Madam) is a stone cold classic.
1. Michelle Yeoh
It takes a lot to upstage Jackie Chan, but Michelle Yeoh managed do it in Police Story 3, simply by jumping off a hill on a motorbike and landing on a moving train. And Yeoh had never even ridden a motorbike before when the film started shooting.
Michelle Yeoh is as important a part of the golden age of Hong Kong action cinema as Chan, Jet Li or John Woo. The list of classics she made is incredible – as well Police Story 3, you need to check out the fantasy adventure The Heroic Trio and its sequel, her film with Cynthia Rothrock, Yuen Woo-ping’s Tai Chi Master (aka Twin Warriors) alongside Jet Li, Magnificent Warriors, let along Crouching Tiger…
In the mid-90s she followed the likes of Chan and Li west. She’s been somewhat underserved by her Hollywood action roles – she’s great as the single most badass Bond girl in Tomorrow Never Dies, but generally things like Babylon A.D. and the third Mummy film are far beneath her. She’s also become an acclaimed actress when she’s not kicking people in the face, especially in Danny Boyle’s Sunshine and Luc Besson’s The Lady. But it’s her late 80s and early 90s Hong Kong work that will give her true immortality.