Top 10 Best Female-Led Action Movies
While it took a while for women to lead action movies, and while they’re still not taking a part in big franchises like Mission: Impossible or 007, by the turn of the century, the wheels of change were in motion. Nowadays we can confidently make a top 10 list with the best female-led action movies, not only because there’s a pool to choose from but because they are actually good and the box office shows that people love them.
Resident Evil (2002-2016)
Why pick one female-led movie when we can have a whole franchise with six? Based on a Japanese video game franchise, Resident Evil introduces Alice played by Milla Jovovich, a former security specialist and covert operative who fights against the Umbrella Corporation, a top-secret facility, which is responsible for the bioweapon, the T-Virus, that triggered a zombie apocalypse. As such, these movies have plenty of action moves and Jovovich carries the franchise effortlessly as she faces humans and zombies.
While the reviews haven’t always been the best, it’s undeniable the impact this franchise had on audiences, grossing over $1.2 billion which once got it the title of highest-grossing film series based on a video game, but also on the horror and zombie genres. Moreover, in 2021 Johannes Robers directed a reboot with Kaya Scodelario, which goes to show that they still see potential in the saga.
Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001)
Everyone knows how badass Angelina Jolie can be from Salt to Wanted or even Mr. & Mrs. Smith, yet, playing Lara Croft allowed her to be immortalized in an unforgettable action role that would inspire many Halloween costumes. While the 2001 feature is also based on the Tomb Raider video game series, it was Jolie’s take on the story that took it to the general public.
Jolie plays the posh archaeologist Lara Croft, skilled in hand-to-hand combat, but who is comfortable doing any kind of acrobatics and managing all weapons while adventuring around the world to recover lost antiquities.
Lara Croft: Tomb Raider was the highest-grossing movie on its opening weekend, and Jolie returned to the role in 2003 with Lara Croft: Tomb Raider – The Cradle of Life. Later in 2018, the series got rebooted with Alicia Vikander playing a more serious Lara Croft.
Kill Bill (2003-2004)
Out of all the movies on this list Kill Bill Volumes 1 and 2, are the ones that got the classic status among cinema buffs. Besides starring the great Uma Thurman, it’s directed by Quentin Tarantino, which is already most of the ingredients you need to get a great feature. Tarantino is known for action sequences and blood, a lot of blood, and this movie is no exception.
Kill Bill follows Thurman’s character, The Bride, a former assassin who wakes up after four years in a coma and is looking for revenge as her ex-lover left her to die. Martial arts combined with a cold Thurman create this masterpiece.
While Kill Bill was meant to be released as a single production, the director decided to split it into two so he wouldn’t have to cut scenes, thus, Volume 2 came out six months later. Both movies were a success at the box office, grossing over $330 million on a $60 million budget, and granted Thurman two Golden Globes nominations.
Shortly after the Resident Evil franchise debut, it came Underworld’s turn with Selene (Kate Beckinsale) at the front, lasting five movies. These action films opened up the doors for the supernatural by portraying a battle between vampires and Lycans. From this battle, the protagonist is left with no family and has to turn to her vampire clan who trains her to be an assassin. While her skills are bulletproof, her loyalty, once she meets a really nice Lycan, is not so much.
On top of being full of action (one could even argue too many bullets and not enough fangs), the franchise has a dark and sexy aesthetic, including leather jackets and tall boots, that make it unique in the genre. While Underworld didn’t gross as much as Resident Evil, it still had a massive fan base that allowed it to flourish for two decades.
Atomic Blonde (2017)
Charlize Theron is definitely an action warrior with Mad Max: Fury Road and The Old Guard as great examples of her talent. Yet, Atomic Blonde lets her shine in a different way. Theron plays Lorraine Broughton, an undercover MI6 agent who’s sent to Berlin to investigate the murder of a colleague and pursue a bunch of double agents, just before the fall of the wall.
Directed by David Leitch, who also co-directed John Wick (although not credited), the film presents long poetic choreographed fighting sequences without much editing, which Theron masters to the point with brutality but also elegance. If you’re looking for blood, you came to the right place.
With a $30 million budget, it grossed $100 million and generally received positive reviews from critics. Furthermore, a sequel is in development, and who knows if a crossover with John Wick might happen in the future.
Wonder Woman (2017)
Call it controversial, but Wonder Woman saved the DCEU. Gadot plays Diana (aka Wonder Woman), an Amazon princess who comes to the world of Man to fight evil and put an end to human conflict in the midst of WWI.
Besides breaking box office records, Patty Jenkin’s take on the story completely transformed how women were approached in the superhero genre. Gal Gadot lands a perfect performance in a plot full of action sequences but also with a complex and developed character, both things that were absent from previous female-driven superhero movies.
It grossed over $822 million and made it to the top 10 of the highest-grossing films of 2017, and, for a while, it was the highest-grossing film by a solo female director. In 2020, the sequel came out, flopping in viewership due to the pandemic but also in the eyes of the critics, and an already greenlit third instalment was canceled in 2023. Doesn’t seem fair that the one who saved the franchise is being shoved in the back, but let us wait and see DCEU’s master plan.
Charlie’s Angels (2000)
Three detectives with cool clothes and gadgets and even cooler martial and tech skills hunt down criminals. Yes, you read correctly, not one but three women on screen. With names like Lucy Liu, Drew Barrymore, and Cameron Diaz, who wouldn’t want to check out this spy film? Of course, they work for a secret boss, who’s a man, but it was the 2000s, and not everything was perfect. Still, they are the stars in this lighter action filled with humor.
Charlie’s Angels is a continuation of the TV show of the same name that ran from 1976 to 1981. The feature grossed $264 million worldwide and got a sequel three years later, Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle, which grossed $259 million and was number one at the box office. The trio was so popular, that, of course, in the age of reboots, in 2019, it got a new shot with Kristen Stewart, Naomi Scott, and Ella Balinska. While it didn’t score amazing numbers, it is still fun and a great time.
Emily Blunt proved on Edge of Tomorrow that she was more than capable of going to the battlefield, yet she shared the spotlight with Tom Cruise, so allows us to highlight Sicario instead. Blunt is Kate Macer, an FBI agent enlisted to bring down the leader of a Mexican drug cartel, thus, she has to go on a dangerous operation to Ciudad Juárez, in Mexico.
Although she is part of a team, she’s the centerpiece and carries the movie with a vulnerability that never compromises her skills. On top of Emily’s performance, Sicario also has Denis Villeneuve at the directing front, which ensures there’s plenty of suspense and intensity.
While the box office wasn’t astonishing ($85 million), this is the only movie in this list that got recognized by the Academy Awards getting nominations for Best Cinematography, Best Original Score, and Best Sound Editing. Moreover, the critics complimented Blunt’s execution.
The Hunger Games (2012-2015)
For young adults, this was definitely a mark that opened the door for other female-led franchises like Divergent. With four movies based on Suzanne Collins’ books, The Hunger Games is set in the nation of Panem, divided into 12 districts, ruled by the Capitol and, every year, each district must select two tributes between the ages of 12 to 18 to fight to the death until there’s only one survivor. The whole thing is televised – super dystopian right?
At the center of it all, we got Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen who volunteers as a tribute to take her sister’s place in the games. Katniss is skilled with her bow and ends up saving everyone in what turned out to be a breakout role for Lawrence.
The first installment was a huge success, setting records for opening day (67$ million) and grossing over $694 million, making it the ninth-highest-grossing film of 2012. Catching Fire, the second film, beat the first one making it to number five on the highest-grossing films of 2013 with $865 million at the box office. The Mockingjay Part 1 and 2 didn’t break records, but were still incredibly successful and received generally positive reviews. 2023 presents us with the prequel The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, so let’s see if the franchise still got it.
Sigourney Weaver is Lieutenant Ellen Ripley in the Alien franchise, and while in the first film (1979) she already demonstrated her survivor abilities, it was the sequel that gave her room to be one of the most badass protagonists of action and of sci-fi.
James Cameron’s Aliens takes Weaver’s character and puts her at the center as she’s found by a salvage crew and wakes up from her hyper-sleep 50 years after surviving an alien attack. Thanks to the movie’s success and Weaver’s portrayal of resilience and bravery, doors were opened afterwards so other female heroines could enter.
Although the Alien franchise proved to be popular with two more sequels in 1992 and 1997 and two prequels in 2012 and 2017, they were never as successful as the first two which grossed more than 300$ million together. The sci-fi sequel scored seven nominations at the Academy Awards, including Best Actress, and while Weaver didn’t take the prize home, Aliens got Best Sound Effects Editing and Best Visual Effects, and all during a time when the genre was severely overlooked by critics.
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