Top Ten Female Action Heroes
Editor’s Notes: In the Blood is now out in limited release. For our thoughts on the film, read John’s review (30/100).
It’s easy when asked to think about female action heroes to quickly round up female superhero characters. The abundance of classic and contemporary female superheroes, from Wonder Woman to Cat Woman, all comic book based, is relatively astonishing. Female action heroes can be more than those endowed with super human powers. The involvement of the female character in action genre films has unfortunately the same history as female characters in the horror genre. Often the damsel in distress or the trophy prize for the hero, as far back as Greek mythology this has been the fate of the female in heroic tales, and this has remained relatively constant in feature films. For me, a female action hero is somebody who ultimately demonstrates the traits of a hero figure and as this top ten shows, somebody who defies the genre standards and represents something unique within the genre’s expectations.
These movies are each classics, best viewed on a home theater projector screen.
Ripley from Alien (1979)
Sigourney Weaver is the original female action hero, the one I remember most and encountered first. Before I saw Alien I assumed, as many young girls did for most of their lives, that the role of a female character in an action film was to be the damsel in distress in need to a male counterpart to rescue them. Similarly to horror films, this is the most represented female figure in action genre films, but with the event of Alien the genre was turned on its head. Sigourney Weaver has a lot to answer for in terms of progressing the role of females in action sequences and the development of a female survivor. Only recently in Prometheus (2011) was this specific role tackled again, albeit differently and with more dramatic consequences that resulted in much less of an admirable heroine. Ripley is by far the most powerful female action role and the most impacting.
Sarah Connor from The Terminator (1984) & Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
When the world’s fate lies far in the future and is determined by the war with the machines, there’s only one L.A. waitress who’s unborn child can save earth as we know it. Sarah Connor is that unknowing waitress, when saved by a solider from the future she becomes a hardened warrior, ready to take on any machine that gets in her way. Linda Hamilton coined the original Sarah Connor, but the character has been redone in several films and she’s had her own reboot in a TV series (Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles). As much an action hero as any man, Sarah Connor is a fighting fit woman of attack and defend quick fire responses. Donning a masculine outfit of white tank top and cargo slacks, big boots and armed with as much muscle as weapon power, Sarah Connor is one of the best examples of a strategic overhaul of the action hero image.
Nikita from La Femme Nikita (1990)
A creation only Luc Besson would have been capable of. Nikita is a convicted criminal, but is given the option of retraining as an assassin instead of serving her sentence in jail. Stylish, sexy and lethal, Nikita is the female action hero that has lead to strong but effeminate representations of female lead characters within the action genre. Nikita isn’t the traditional hero in terms of the Greek definitions, but she is a hero in my eyes as she’s sleek and intelligent, deadly and professional. Never the assassin you’d expect, but always the most provocative solution to a job. Besson has a history of inspired females in his films and they’re all gritty unassuming bold individuals. Four years after Nikita Besson developed my favorite young female action hero in Natalie Portman’s superb performance as Mathilda in Leon (1994). Nikita was the premise to Besson’s development of his unique approach to females involved in the action genre.
Lara Croft from Tomb Raider (2001)
A modern icon and the first of many heroines deployed into the film industry after staring in a video game. Angelina Jolie made the adventurous heroine her own, and gave a very fleshy approach to bringing a much loved action genre video game character a new life. Jolie’s publicly strong personality and activism for gender equality plays into the personification of Lara Croft on screen. She’s a not so much a force to be reckoned with as my top three are, but she can look after herself because of her martial arts training and agility. In the line of her work as a courageous archaeologist, Lara Croft faces some hairy moments and seems to get herself out of deadly scrapes with relative ease. Action focused and incredibly physical in her on screen presence, she’s an action hero of the same regard as Indiana Jones.
Azumi from Azumi (2003)
The title of the film is her name, in true action hero film style. She’s not quite of the same nature as Hercules in this respect, but coming from a Japanese cultural perspective there’s a likeness made to the manga and anime industry’s female action heroes. A very Japanese anime narrative brings this action hero to light. A schoolgirl that is also a powerful ninja, who must defeat three evil warlords while coming to terms with the teenage torments of heartache. She’s cute and sassy, a skillful ninja and raised to stare death in the face. The feats she completes are things of anime nature and the action sequences are unrivalled in style. A cardboard cut out of the western ideology to Japanese films, Azumi requires a re-evaluation as a perceptive representation of a young female action hero.
Zen from Chocolate (2008)
Tony Jaa (the martial arts legend of Muay Thai on screen) had his work cut out for his female protégé JeeJa Yanin in this high impact action film. An autistic girl with an unbounded level of skill in martial arts takes on the gangs that owe her dying mother money. As with a lot of martial arts films, the credits roll past the painful outtakes where the stars suffer for their craft and stunts go wrong. Zen is the easiest demonstrative example of a physically impressive female action hero. All the character’s power as a martial arts combat artist lies in the immaculate training and skillset of the actress JeeJa Yanin. An absolute powerhouse of explosive talent to front a character that’s a definition of female stars in martial arts films.
Alice from Resident Evil (2002)
Played by Milla Jovovich, Alice is another video game superstar that’s been moved to the silver screen with a decent level of success. As a character she’s a very strange predicament of not knowing who she is or what she’s fighting against, but she’s wired with the mechanics of a fighting machine and the human instincts of survival tactics pulse through her every thought. A brutal landscape of the future where a lab accident has unleashed flesh hungry zombie creatures, Alice finds herself defending her life and battling with her returning memories. A mysterious female action hero that slowly unravels her back story as the narrative goes on, so unlike my other choices that from the get go are explained to make way for the action sequences. Alice struggles on and presents a unique take on the female action hero as she is unsure of herself and is on a voyage of rediscovery and self salvage amidst the huge CGI action sequences.
Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games (2012)
The character that has propelled Jennifer Lawrence into Hollywood stardom and relatively untouchable fame. Katniss Everdeen is from a poor district in a future earth, entered in the place of her little sister to battle to the death in the annual Hunger Games competition. An unlikely hero and entering the battlefield as a terrified girl, her nature knowledge and wild instincts are what pull her through the mindless violence during the games. A lot of the time, she’s an empathic character and deliberately made to seem innocent or not able to help herself. She can take care of herself, but she’s up against fierce competitors that are privileged and impeccably trained warriors, she only has her gut feelings and drive to survive. A hero in her own right because of the end result of the first film in the series, but a hero that struggles with her decisions and is a very humanized female action character.
Elastigirl The Incredibles (2004)
Holly Hunter voices the undercover superhero mother of the family. By day she’s Helen Parr and leads a very regular suburban lifestyle, only the small task of saving the world can tear her away from the everyday. When duty calls she’s the stretchy female superhero with powers that will bend your mind. The glue that holds the family unit together and a force to be reckoned with, Elastigirl had her heyday but is ready to relive her career highlights when duty calls. Physical prowess of elastic is made possible by the animated format of this female action hero, but also makes her a stand alone memorable character within the animation genre.
Hit Girl from Kick-Ass (2010)
Some people define her as the single most annoying character written into a Hollywood film in the last five years and others see her as a paradox of controversy and humor. Hit Girl is the incredibly foul mouthed angry teen that seeks justice and revenge with all her worth. When criminals need punished, she’s settling scores with weaponry and a mindless use of obscene language. She’s a unique character in this list because her actions set her apart from the similarly aged females here. As American as you can get, Hit Girl takes on the star spangled ideology of Wonder Girl and makes it a very modern adaptation of violence.
Heroic feats and self heroism, this collection of female action heroes is as diverse as the genre comes. I’ve tried to give as broad a scope as possible on these choices and although some need explanation, they’re all at the heart of the film action sequences and perform wondrous feats. No two are the same, but a few share the origins of their characters in video games. The diversifying of theses characters only lets me hope there will be many more to come.