Saying there’s a gender inequality issue in Hollywood is like saying George Lucas makes a living. It’s factually accurate, but understating the issue. Certainly in the action world, women tend to be relegated to love interests, kidnap victims and/or angry badasses trying so hard not to be feminine that putting them in a dress at the end of the movie somehow qualifies as character development. (I’m looking at you, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.) Great action heroines are few and far between compared to the army of Jason Stathams and Sylvester Stallones in the world, but this weekend we’ve got not one but two action movies with a female lead: Underworld Awakening, starring Kate Beckinsale, and Haywire, starring MMA superstar Gina Carano. That’s a perfect excuse for this week’s edition of Five Great Movies: Female Action Heroes.
As always, Five Great Movies isn’t claiming these are the five best movies with a female action star. We’re even not claiming that these movies have the five best female action stars either. These are just five, all-around great movies with a woman in the lead butt-kicking role. Not your favorites? Let us know your picks in the comments below.
ALIENS (dir. James Cameron, 1986)
Taking the spook house horror chills of Ridley Scott’s Alien and placing them in an entirely new context, Aliens turned out to be one of the best and most unexpected sequels ever made. Gone were the quiet chills and in its place were stand-up fights between gung ho space marines vs. hundreds of the alien menace, who flew solo on the first film. But Cameron’s reinterpretation of the franchise’s hero, Ellen Ripley, played by Sigourney Weaver, was the most daring of all. Few male action stars get as much baggage as Ripley’s saddled with in Aliens, and fewer still conquer it as dramatically. She’s enduring post-traumatic stress, complete social isolation and most importantly the death of her daughter, made more explicit in the director’s cut of the film. The theatrical release cuts Ripley’s maternal backstory, eliminating the powerful contrast between the heroine’s violent defense of her new surrogate daughter, Newt, and the Alien Queen’s own efforts to protect her vile brood of Xenomorphs. At least the juxtaposition between the sensible heroine, in touch with her fear, and the masculine posturing of space marines whose facades crumble when faced with the alien menace remained intact. There’s a reason why Sigourney Weaver got an Oscar nomination for a sci-fi sequel. Aliens is one of the greats.
LA FEMME NIKITA (dir. Luc Besson, 1990)
Luc Besson is now a household name amongst action enthusiasts, and La Femme Nikita is the reason why. Before he sent Bruce Willis into space in The Fifth Element, and before Jean Reno taught Natalie Portman to clean in Leon: The Professional, Luc Besson brought a street urchin played by Anne Parillaud into a secret branch of the French government. Practically a wild child, Parillaud trained to be a proper lady and function in polite society, all to disguise her true identity as a professional assassin. The problem is… now she actually being a normal person, and will fight to stay that way. Besson’s action classic has been remade three times in the last 20 years, in the American film Point of No Return starring Bridget Fonda, and not one but two television series, starring Peta Wilson and Maggie Q, respectively. None of them match the original for its fierceness and dramatic verisimilitude, and none of those stars match Anne Parillaud performance as the tortured heroine.
TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY (dir. James Cameron, 1991)
Lots of people remember that Terminator 2: Judgment Day brought the Arnold Schwarzenegger, the first film’s bad guy, back as the hero. Fewer people seem to realize that the sequel also recast the original film’s hero as a Terminator. Linda Hamilton made a striking return in the second Terminator movie, having spent the years between them obsessively training for Judgment Day, when the machines have been prophesized to take over the world. She starts the film in a mental institution, trying to escape in order to save her son (Edward Furlong) from the return of the cyborg Terminator and his new nemesis, the liquid metal T-1000. The revolutionary special effects still impress today, and Cameron’s action sequences have probably never been better, but the real dramatic high point of the film is when Hamilton breaks with ethics and morality to kill computer genius Miles Dyson (Joe Morton), without whom Judgment Day will not be possible, and thus becoming the very thing she hates. Hamilton owns her role as a mother on the edge, the ice water in her veins balanced with the rage of a protective lioness.
KILL BILL, VOLUMES 1 & 2 (dir. Quentin Tarantino, 2003-2004)
Quentin Tarantino’s two Kill Bill movies are obviously designed to be a mash note to their star, Uma Thurman, whom the director envisions as a former assassin out for revenge against her old employer and co-workers, who put her in a coma and (she thinks) killed her unborn child. Beyond the sheer dramatic force of “The Bride’s” motivations, Kill Bill is not a particularly plot heavy movie. Thurman basically bounds from one target to the next, exacting revenge and sword fighting masked yakuza and getting buried alive along the way. But Tarantino’s film effortlessly turns style into substance, paying homage to every 1970’s grindhouse classic from The Chinese Connection to Circle of Iron to Coffy to Companeros (and that’s just the C’s) while quite miraculously creating something new. Kill Bill is a rich tapestry of B-movie action porn, weaving the disparate threads into an exhilarating entity full of unforgettable action sequences and stellar performances, all held aloft by Thurman’s incredible performance as B-E-E-E-E-E-P!
SALT (dir. Phillip Noyce, 2010)
Salt may not be one of the best movies ever made, but for a mid-level action movie about – Gasp! – a framed CIA agent out to clear their good name, it’s actually one of the greats. Angelina Jolie plays Evelyn Salt, an agent accused of being a Soviet sleeper agent since childhood. Naturally, since this is Hollywood, she decides to make a run for it to protect her loved ones and prove her innocence. Or, wait… Huh? The superb, steely script by Kurt Wimmer – who also wrote and directed the cult classic Equilibrium – subverts all Hollywood convention halfway through the film, and after that, anything goes. Unlike many of the other great movies on our list, Salt does not infuse its heroine with a feminine backstory based on themes of motherhood, nor does it linger too longingly on her desire for a “normal” life. That the film stars Angelina Jolie is literally incidental: Tom Cruise was original slated to star, and the title character’s sex was changed to accommodate Jolie’s interest in the project. It paid off. After some serious attempts to break into the action genre in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider and Wanted, the crackling thriller Salt finally cemented Angelina Jolie as one of the premiere female action stars of her generation. We can't wait for the sequel.
What are your favorite action movies with a female star?