Top 10 Best Female-led Action Movies
While it took a while for women to lead action films and they still didn’t take part in big franchises like Mission: Impossible or 007, by the turn of the century the wheels of change were in motion. These days we can confidently make a top 10 list of the best female-led action movies, not just because there’s a lot to choose from, but because they’re really good and the box office shows people love them.
Resident Evil (2002-2016)
Why choose a female-led film when we can have an entire franchise in six? Based on a Japanese video game franchise, Resident Evil introduces Alice, played by Milla Jovovich, a former security specialist and undercover agent who fights the Umbrella Corporation, a top-secret facility responsible for the bioweapon, the T-Virus, which has been unleashed a zombie apocalypse. Hence, these movies have a lot of action moves and Jovovich carries the franchise effortlessly while confronting humans and zombies.
While the reviews haven’t always been the best, there’s no denying the impact this franchise has had on audiences. It grossed over $1.2 billion, which once earned it the title of the highest-grossing film series based on a video game, but also on horror and zombie genres. Additionally, Johannes Robers directed a 2021 reboot starring Kaya Scodelario, showing they still see potential in the saga.
Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001)
Everyone knows how badass Angelina Jolie can be from Salt to Wanted to Mr. & Mrs. Smith, but playing Lara Croft allowed her to be immortalized in an unforgettable action role that would inspire many Halloween costumes. Although the 2001 feature film is also based on the Tomb Raider video game series, it was Jolie’s version of the story that brought it to the general public.
Jolie plays posh archaeologist Lara Croft, skilled in hand-to-hand combat but adept at all manner of acrobatics and weapon handling as she travels the world to recover lost antiquities.
Lara Croft: Tomb Raider was the highest-grossing film in its opening weekend, and Jolie returned to the role in 2003’s Lara Croft: Tomb Raider – The Cradle of Life. Later in 2018 the series was rebooted with Alicia Vikander playing a more serious Lara Croft.
Killing Bill (2003–2004)
Of all the films on this list, Kill Bill Volumes 1 and 2 are the ones that have achieved classic status among cinema fans. Aside from starring the amazing Uma Thurman, Quentin Tarantino directs, which are already most of the ingredients you need to get a great movie. Tarantino is known for action sequences and blood, lots of blood, and this film is no exception.
Kill Bill follows Thurman’s character The Bride, a former assassin who wakes up after four years in a coma and seeks revenge when her ex-lover left her to die. Martial arts combined with a cold Thurman create this masterpiece.
While Kill Bill was going to be released as a standalone production, the director decided to split it into two parts so he wouldn’t have to cut any scenes, so Volume 2 came out six months later. Both films were box office successes, grossing over $330 million from a budget of $60 million and earning Thurman two Golden Globe nominations.
Shortly after the Resident Evil franchise debut, Underworld starred Selene (Kate Beckinsale) and lasted five films. These action films opened the doors to the supernatural by depicting a battle between vampires and lycans. As a result of this battle, the protagonist is left without a family and must turn to her vampire clan, who are training her to be an assassin. While her skills are bulletproof, once she meets a really nice Lycan, her loyalty isn’t so much.
Aside from being action-packed (one could even argue that there are 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 huge following that allowed it to thrive for two decades.
Atomic Blonde (2017)
Charlize Theron is definitely an action warrior with Mad Max: Fury Road and The Old Guard being great examples of her talent. But Atomic Blonde makes her shine in a different way. Theron plays Lorraine Broughton, an undercover agent for MI6 who is sent to Berlin just before the Wall comes down to investigate the murder of a colleague and track a bunch of double agents.
Directed by David Leitch, who also co-directed John Wick (although uncredited), the film presents long, poetically choreographed fight sequences without much editing that Theron nails with brutality but also elegance. If you’re looking for blood, you’ve come to the right place.
With a budget of $30 million, it grossed $100 million and received generally positive reviews from critics. Additionally, a sequel is in development and who knows if there might be a crossover with John Wick in the future.
Wonder Woman (2017)
Call it controversial, but Wonder Woman saved the DCEU. Gadot plays Diana (aka Wonder Woman), an Amazonian princess who comes to the human world to fight evil and end human conflict in the midst of World War I.
Aside from breaking box office records, Patty Jenkin’s take on the story completely changed the way women were approached in the superhero genre. Gal Gadot lands a perfect performance in a storyline packed with action sequences but also with a complex and developed character, both things lacking in previous female-driven superhero films.
It grossed over $822 million and made the top 10 highest-grossing films of 2017, and for a while was the highest-grossing film by a solo director. In 2020 the sequel came out, which flopped in viewership due to the pandemic but also in the eyes of critics, and an already green light for the third installment was canceled in 2023. Doesn’t seem fair that whoever saved the franchise is being shoved in the background, but let’s await DCEU’s master plan.
Charlie’s Angels (2000)
Three detectives with cool clothes and gadgets and even cooler war and technology skills hunt down criminals. Yes, you read that right, not one but three women on screen. With the likes of Lucy Liu, Drew Barrymore and Cameron Diaz, who wouldn’t want to check out this spy movie? Of course they work for a secret boss who is a man, but it was the 2000s and not everything was perfect. Still, they’re the stars in this lighter action full of humor.
Charlie’s Angels is a sequel to the TV show of the same name that ran from 1976 to 1981. The feature film grossed $264 million worldwide and received a sequel three years later, Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle, which grossed $259 million and was the number one box office. The trio were so popular that, of course, they got a fresh shot in the 2019 age of reboots, starring Kristen Stewart, Naomi Scott and Ella Balinska. While it didn’t score amazing numbers, it’s still fun and a great time.
Emily Blunt proved in Edge of Tomorrow that she was more than capable of taking to the battlefield, but she shared the spotlight with Tom Cruise, so we can highlight Sicario instead. Blunt plays Kate Macer, an FBI agent hired to take down the leader of a Mexican drug cartel, forcing her to conduct a dangerous operation to Ciudad Juárez, Mexico.
Despite being part of a team, she is the centerpiece and carries the film with a vulnerability that never compromises her abilities. In addition to Emily’s performance, Sicario also has Denis Villeneuve at the helm, providing plenty of suspense and intensity.
Although the box office earnings weren’t amazing ($85 million), this is the only film on this list to be recognized by the Academy Awards, receiving nominations for Best Cinematography, Best Original Score, and Best Sound Editing. In addition, critics praised Blunt’s execution.
The Hunger Games (2012-2015)
For young adults, this was definitely a sign that opened the door for other female-led franchises like Divergent. Featuring four films based on the books by Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games is set in the nation of Panem, which is divided into 12 districts governed by the Capitol, and each year each district must pay two tributes between the ages of 12 and 18 choose to fight to their deaths until there is only one survivor. The whole thing will be televised – super dystopian right?
It all centers on 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 a role that turned out to be Lawrence’s breakthrough.
The first was a huge success, setting opening-day records ($67 million) and grossing over $694 million, making it the ninth-highest-grossing film of 2012. Catching Fire, the second film, beat the first to make it the fifth highest grossing film of 2013 with $865 million at the box office. Mockingjay Parts 1 and 2 didn’t break any records, but were still incredibly successful and received generally positive reviews. 2023 brings us the prequel The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, so let’s see if the franchise still has it.
Sigourney Weaver is Lieutenant Ellen Ripley in the Alien franchise, and while she already demonstrated her survival skills in the first film (1979), it was the sequel that gave her the space to be one of action and sci-fi’s badass protagonists.
James Cameron’s Aliens takes Weaver’s character and focuses on her as she is found by a salvage crew and awakens from her hypersleep 50 years after surviving an alien attack. Thanks to the film’s success and Weaver’s portrayal of resilience and bravery, doors were subsequently opened for other female heroines to enter.
Although the Alien franchise proved 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 combined. The sci-fi sequel received seven Academy Awards nominations, including Best Actress, and while Weaver didn’t take home the award, Aliens took home Best Sound Effects and Best Visual Effects, all at a time when that Genre has been greatly overlooked by critics.
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