20 of Cinema’s Greatest Female Action Heroes

Evelyn Salt 
Angelina Jolie was Hollywood’s premier action heroine for 17 years, starting quietly with Cyborg 2 in 1993 and ending in 2010 when she made The Tourist and Scarlett Johansson appeared as Black Widow for the first time and started reaching for her crown. It’s not Tomb Raider, Mr & Mrs Smith, Sky Captain or Wanted that earns her a place on this list though, it isn’t even Cyborg 2, it’s Salt. Unlike most of her action films Salt did not play heavily on her beauty or sexiness (largely because the part was initially written for a Tom Cruise) and is all the better for it. Instead she was presented as a tough CIA agent using her intelligence to save herself and expose corruption. 

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Wai Lin

Apparently when asked if she wanted to be a Bond girl, Angelina Jolie responded to say that no, she wanted to be Bond. That’s a great answer but actually I’ve never been behind the idea of a female Bond. Why should women have to piggy back on established male roles when they can just create new characters for themselves? (As Jolie then did.) In Tomorrow Never Dies Michelle Yeoh showed that it didn’t need to be one or the other though; you could actually be both Bond’s ‘girl’ and his equal. Her Wai Lin, an agent for the Chinese External Security Force, drives the plot and saves the day just as much as Pierce Brosnan’s 007 and is undoubtedly the series’ greatest female character.

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Natasha Romanoff

Marvel’s Black Widow is undoubtedly now contemporary American action cinema’s highest profile female character and a role that has secured Scarlett Johansson’s standing as the new Angelina Jolie. As well as playing this part in Iron Man 2, Captain America 2 and 3 and Avengers 1 and 2, Johansson has also played comparable roles in Lucy and Ghost in the Shell. Johansson’s Romanoff has a dark red past but is now an unhesitating soldier for good. She is dispassionate but not emotionless and has a clear sense of right and wrong that often puts her in conflict with her allies, although it is never her that’s wrong.

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Nikita

Luc Besson has given us many strong female characters over the years; Matilda in Léon, Leeloo in the Fifth Element and, of course Scarlett Johansson’s Lucy. None of them quite match his first though. In La Femme Nikita Anne Parillaud plays a messed up felon, trained and forced to become a government assassin. Having gone through a My Fair Lady Killer style transformation she outclasses them all.

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Pauline Marvin

It is a misapprehension that Pearl White’s character in 1914’s The Perils of Pauline was just a damsel in distress who constantly needed saving by a strong man. In many cases it was her own determination and ingenuity that got her out of trouble and she was the first woman to show this kind of strength on the big screen. White played a similar character in the Exploits of Elaine series and by this stage she was even less reliant on the men around her.

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Sarah Connor

Playing a mother is not always the most exciting role for an actress unless the film is directed by James Cameron (see also Aliens). In Terminator 2: Judgement Day Linda Hamilton portrays a woman convinced her son is the single most important person in the world. Like everyone with similar feelings about their offspring this causes her to go totally over the top in her parenting style, inevitably leading the kid in question to go a bit off the rails. It’s only when she sees him for who he is rather than who she thinks he will be though that she is able to connect with him. Of course in her case the boy genuinely is the future saviour of humanity and they bond over machine gun battles with an unstoppable shape shifting murderbot. Don’t even get me started on where the fake and manufactured father figure fits into this metaphor. 

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Laura

Few female fighters on screen have been as viciously feral and efficiently violent as the 11 year old girl in this year’s Logan. Of all the people on this list she is both the sweetest and the scariest. She has all the lack of cynicism, loyalty, innocence and uncomplicated sense of justice that come with youth but she’ll slice your head off soon as look at you.

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Hit Girl

Hit Girl is only a year older than Logan’s Laura but has all the cynicism, mistrust, sass and misguided sense of justice that comes with approaching teenage. A brilliant parody of Robin, the Boy Wonder this character from Kick Ass shows just how disturbing the notion of an adolescent crime fighter is. Why would any sane adult put someone so young in such danger and teach them to do such violent things and what does it say about us as an audience that we think it is all so cool? It is cool though.

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Hanna

It is interesting that killer kids are nearly always female? As well as Laura and Hit Girl there is also the aforementioned Matilda, Eli from Let the Right One In, Hayley from Hard Candy and the girl that wins in Battle Royale. I guess young women tend to illicit more sympathy than boys who might just come across as evil little monsters. Add to this list of teen murderers Saoirse Ronan’s confused but not even marginally conflicted teen assassin Hanna. Unlike Hit Girl and Laura, Hanna actually questions her psychological programming but it doesn’t make her any less dangerous as Downton Abbey’s Lady Mary suddenly finds out to her cost.

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Tank Girl

The Tank Girl movie may not have properly captured the spirit of the comic or done very well at the box office but it actually has much to recommend it. First off it has very strong themes surrounding feminism and equality; criticising gender stereotypes, challenging sexual harassment, promoting dominant female sexuality and rejecting heteronormativity. The title character, played by Lori Petty, is also more of a selfless hero than she is on the page motivated by the murder of her partner and the victimisation of children. Significantly the film is also directed by a woman, Rachel Talalay, which sets it apart from every other movie mentioned here.

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Beatrix Kiddo

One thing that unsurprisingly links all of the women on this list is that they are not the kind of people to take any crap, especially not from men. The Bride in Kill Bill has been betrayed and left for dead by her gang and she is not letting it go, no matter how many people get in her way. Her sword battle against The Crazy 88 is the most spectacular of all of her fights across these two movies but actually all them show her as a dedicated, skilled and unflinching agent of retribution.

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Rey

Despite the strength and determination of Princess Leia in the original Star Wars trilogy those films are not full of great female characters. This is now being fully addressed with the new films that are putting women at the heart of the stories. It is impressive how quickly into The Force Awakens it is that Rey becomes such an important character, not just in this one film but in the whole saga. Well before the end she has shown herself to be brave, formidable and immensely likeable, as well as being a surprisingly fast learner, but when she picks up that lightsaber in the closing twenty minutes the woman instantly becomes a legend.

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Trinity

To properly admire Trinity you need to ignore the second and third Matrix films in which she becomes totally marginalised and disempowered. In the original though she is just brilliant. Before Neo begins to believe all that guff about stopping bullets and being ‘the one’ he is totally reliant on Trinity and without her he’d never picked up a gun or go a chance to pick up that black flappy jacket. 

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Hermione Granger

Hermione on the other hand doesn’t really come into her own until the later movies. She is an important member of the team right from the start, it is true that without her Harry Potter would have died in year one, but by The Deathly Hallows she is pretty much in charge with a trick or a plan to fend off any one of their properly vicious attackers. 

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Lieutenant Nyota Uhura

There are shamefully few black characters included here because there are shamefully few black women in action cinema. Pam Grier played a number of tough women in the 70s but by modern standards they were all uncomfortably sexualised (Barbarella doesn’t make the cut for the same reason). Star Trek‘s Lieutenant Uhura, played first by Nichelle Nichols and then Zoe Saldana bucks this trend just as she did so many others. A genuine cultural icon she never had to flirt her way out of any situation and while she may not have always been front and centre in the action, especially not with Nichols, she was always a key part of every Enterprise mission.

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Imperator Furiosa

Charlize Theron’s character in Mad Max: Fury Road, like Michelle Yeoh in Tomorrow Never Dies, practically steals the movie away from the established male lead by being braver, more heroic, tougher and more inspirational than him in every single way. The gender politics in the film might generally be little confused but Imperator Furiosa is simply one of the best action heroes in cinema, irrelevant of gender.

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Ellen Ripley

Here she is; American action cinema’s most celebrated sister. Initially just an ordinary person among the crew of a routine space flight it isn’t even clear at the start that she is the protagonist. Then faced with an extraordinary threat she fights to become an incredible survivor. It is in Aliens the second film, under the direction of James Cameron again, that her maternal instincts start to play a part and she becomes someone truly formidable.

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Katniss Everdeen

Like Ellen Ripley, The Hunger Games‘ Katniss Everdeen is a sensible and resourceful but normal woman who becomes a powerful combatant when faced with violent death. Whereas Ripley just fought off a few monsters though Katniss Everdeen won two gladiatorial contest against foes who had prepared for the contest their whole lives, inspired the oppressed masses, spearheaded a revolution, fought in a war, overthrew a dictatorship, killed a president and wore a couple of amazing frocks. 

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Mulan

Now here is a woman prepared to do all that it takes to win in a man’s world. Disney’s Mulan should not be underestimated in terms of the importance of its pro-women message. First off the lady holds her own against the boys, achieving incredible war victories by playing things their way, then she shows that to save the day what is really needed is a woman and not a man at all. That’s a real feminist icon!

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Rita Vrataski

For there to be true equality in Hollywood then there needs to be a significant number of roles that are written not specifically for men or women and are evenly distributed between the both. Edge of Tomorrow gives us a glimpse of this happy world. In an alternate reality somewhere I’m sure there is a version of the film where the tough, no nonsense, veteran war hero Sergeant Vrataski is played by Clint Eastwood but in our glorious reality the part belongs to Emily Blunt.

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