Action movies aren’t just for men. Many of the most acclaimed butt-kicking features of all time disavow conventions and cast strong, dynamic females in leading roles. From swords to fists, these women employ brute power and intellectual dexterity to save the day in their respective films.
While genre greats like Sigourney Weaver and Pam Grier paved the way, a new wave of female action stars has arrived on the scene. Whether flexing their muscles in a dystopian sci-fi franchise, a gritty assassin thriller, or a DC comics reboot, these women give the genre a much-needed boost of estrogen and style.
Updated on May 1st, 2021 by Mark Birrell: There are so many great action movies that are lead by women, and a large number of them still go underappreciated even today. Considering the breadth of options available to movie fans right now, we couldn’t limit this list to only 10 entries and have added a further 5. Whether searching for star-studded blockbusters or more niche classics, both new and old, this list should more than satisfy even the most discerning of action aficionados. Finding the best female-driven action movies that are available on streaming services right now need not be a chore.
15 The Old Guard (2020) Available on Netflix
The Old Guard combines supernatural characters with assassin tropes in exciting ways. This Netflix ensemble thriller stars Charlize Theron as Andy, the leader of a mercenary team with regenerative abilities that is targeted by a pernicious CIA agent.
As the agent joins forces with a pharmaceutical executive to figure out how to harness and profit from the group’s power, Andy joins forces with the title group’s newest members, KiKi Layne’s character Nile Freeman, to fend off their latest threat. With its female director, Gina Prince-Bythewood, and leading Femme Fatales, The Old Guard screams girl power.
14 Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003) Available on HBO Max
Uma Thurman created a movie icon with her performance as The Bride, a vengeful former assassin with a kill list of former associates who left her for dead after massacring her wedding party.
The titular Bill is kept mostly in the shadows for the first part, being saved mostly for Vol. 2. But fans are never left wanting for memorable villainy as The Bride goes up against her first two names, played by Vivica A. Fox and Lucy Lui, who deliver two brilliantly brutal fight sequences as Thurman unleashes her character’s fury with a flurry of sword strokes and ice-cold one-liners.
13 Lady Snowblood (1973) Available on HBO Max
The ultimate revenge tale unfurls in Lady Snowblood, a Japanese period drama that contains some serious slasher movie vibes. Toshiya Fujita brings the manga of the same name to life in this adaptation, which follows a young woman named Yuki as she searches for the three men who assaulted and murdered her family.
An inspiration for Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill movies, Lady Snowblood‘s narrative is fueled by feminine rage and skilled fighting abilities on behalf of the eponymous character. Meiko Kaji, who portrays Yuki, gives a nimble and mesmerizing performance very similar to what Uma Thurman accomplishes in Tarantino’s aforementioned films.
12 The Villainess (2017) Available on Tubi
A long and complex story propelled forward by even longer and more complex action sequences, The Villainess unravels the life of a female assassin, from their training to a bloody quest for revenge.
From POV rampages to chase sequences so inventive that the John Wick series took notes, The Villainess is a cutting-edge action thriller with creativity to spare.
11 Hanna (2011) Available on Peacock
Joe Wright’s gritty action flick stars a young Saoirse Ronan as a girl raised in the Finnish wilderness who is trained by her father to be an assassin. As Hanna‘s title character, Ronan departs from genre tropes with her whimsical, yet hard-hitting, performance.
Eric Bana co-stars as Hanna’s father, a former CIA agent. Father and daughter are hunted by Cate Blanchett’s character Marissa Wiegler, a high-level CIA operative who wants them both eliminated.
10 Haywire (2011) Available on HBO Max
Haywire begins with a woman and a man meeting in an upstate New York diner. The woman, Mallory Kane, turns out to be a trained operative; the man, Aaron, is an associate of Mallory’s who is part of a large conspiracy to take Mallory out.
In this film directed by Stephen Soderbergh, the plot quickly evolves into a fast-paced action flick full of unexpected twists and turns. Gina Carano plays Kane, who is supported by Ewan McGregor, Channing Tatum, Michael Fassbender, and Antonio Banderas – to name a few.
9 The Hunger Games (2012) Available on Fubo TV and Tubi
Jennifer Lawrence made a name for herself by bringing The Hunger Games‘ protagonist, Katniss Everdeen, to life on the big screen. In the first entry of this popular dystopian franchise, Lawrence’s character is chosen to participate in her Orwellian government’s deadly Hunger Games – a yearly televised event that ends with just one survivor.
The stakes become higher as Lawrence’s character Katniss Everdeen and her fellow competitors get closer and closer to the game’s finale. Lawrence reprises her role as Katniss Everdeen in the follow-up films, Catching Fire and Mockingjay Part 1 and Part 2.
8 Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016) Available on Disney+
The first Star Wars spinoff movie was a hit at the box office and introduced fans to a whole new set of characters from the galaxy far, far away as well as bringing back a few iconic ones too.
Felicity Jones leads the titular ragtag group of rebels on a daring prequel mission to steal the Death Star plans and kickstart the plot of the original movie, providing a more grownup take on the hopefully ongoing trend of female leads for the franchise started by Daisy Ridley in Star Wars: The Force Awakens the previous year.
7 Alien Resurrection (1997) Available on Cinemax
Sigourney Weaver set the standard for action movie heroines with her performance in Ridley Scott’s sci-fi horror gem Alien. This fourth installment in the Alien franchise, directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet and written by Joss Whedon, sees Weaver sharing the screen with Winona Ryder.
In Alien Resurrection, Weaver’s character Ellen Ripley is cloned 200 years after her death, where a group of scientists uses her as part of an experiment with alien Xenomorphs.
6 Aliens (1986) Available on Cinemax
Weaver was arguably no more iconic in the Alien franchise than they were in James Cameron’s explosive sequel, which saw her return to the role of Ripley and journey back to the planet where it all went wrong in the original movie.
When the heavily-armed marines she’s with are inevitably obliterated by the Xenomorph hordes, it’s up to her to take control of the situation, save the survivors, plan an escape, and get some well-earned payback.
5 The Assassin (2015) Available on Amazon Prime Video
Hou Hsiao-Hsien is considered one of the most important directors to come out of Taiwan, and The Assassin is a testament to his moviemaking skills. This elegant, Mandarin action feature is anchored by Shu Qi’s performance as the eponymous assassin, Nie Yinniang.
The Assassin‘s events unfold during the Tang Dynasty, where Qi’s character is tasked with dispatching her cousin, a man she was supposed to marry before making an oath to her master. From its visually stunning settings to its detailed martial arts action sequences, Hsaio-Hsien’s film is a near-perfect addition to the martial arts subgenre.
4 V For Vendetta (2006) Available on HBO Max
Natalie Portman made her feature film debut in Luc Besson’s grimy and intense 1994 assassin thriller The Professional, and she returns to her raw action roots in V for Vendetta. Adapted from Alan Moore’s graphic novel of the same name, V for Vendetta occurs in an alternative, fascist Great Britain where an anonymous mercenary named V transpires against the authoritarian government.
Hugo Weaving plays the Guy Fawkes mask-wearing V and Portman co-stars as his new accomplice, Evey Hammond. After saving Evey from the secret police, V train her to help him in his mission.
3 Wonder Woman (2017) Available on HBO Max
Patty Jenkins, who directed Charlize Theron in 2003’s Monster, updates the DC character Wonder Woman for modern audiences with her 2017 film, which stars Gal Gadot in the title role. Jenkins’s film jumps through time as it explores the life of Princess Diana, an Amazonian warrior goddess who is the crown princess of Themyscira and the daughter of Queen Hippolyta and Zeus.
Wonder Woman stands apart from many other superhero blockbusters thanks in large to Gadot’s charismatic, believable performance. Instead of adopting a dark tone, this feature takes a more positive route.
2 Coffy (1973) Available on Tubi
Pam Grier is the star of this classic blaxploitation film, cited by Quentin Tarantino as one of his favorites. As Coffy in Coffy, Grier plays a nursed turned vigilante who goes after the drug dealer responsible for her sister’s addiction.
Tarantino loves this film so much, as well as Grier’s work in other low-budget black action films like Friday Foster and Foxy Brown, that he asked her to star in his 1997 feature Jackie Brown. Grier remains a standout among early cinematic efforts to center female performers.
1 Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) Available on HBO Max
A certifiable modern classic, the fourth Mad Max movie changed things up a bit, being the first entry in the series to not be lead by original Max actor Mel Gibson and focussing mostly on the new character of Furiosa, played by Charlize Theron.
Tom hardy shines as the new Max but Theron and the liberated women that she’s trying to take to safety are the real stars next to the movie’s astounding stunt work and action sequences.
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