‘You hit like a girl’ wouldn’t be an insult if everyone know about Gina Carano. The MMA fighter became action star in this year's Haywire, directed by Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh, and her charismatic performance and utterly ass-kicking action fight scenes seem likely to make her one of the great female action stars. Yes, Hollywood, we think the people are ready. You've been dancing around the idea of letting women be action stars before, and Cutthroat Island just wasn't a good enough excuse to put the idea to bed – outside of the occasional video game adaptation or B-movie genre outing – for 20 years. We're calling you out. Gina Carano. Make it happen.
But we digress. Before you pick up Haywire on DVD and Blu-ray on May 1, you should probably prepare yourself with ten of the best female fighters in film history, in no particular order. It's a little too soon to include Gina Carano, but just give her some time.
Hit Girl, from Kick-Ass
You know when guys say something stupid like, “You hit like a girl?” They’d shut their pie holes if they ever met Hit Girl. Played by Chloe Grace Moretz in Matthew Vaughn’s 2010 adaptation of the popular comic book series Kick-Ass, this pint-sized pugilist takes down scores of enemies more than twice her size. The character sparked some controversy for placing a young girl in a role traditionally reserved for sexually-attractive women, and a homicidal maniac besides, but they rather missed the irony of the story, didn’t they?
Zen, from Chocolate
Director Prachya Pinkaew, in an apparent attempt to introduce a female counterpart to Tony Jaa (whom Pinkaew unleashed on the world with 2003’s Ong Bak), crafted the quirky 2008 confection Chocolate. The film stars Yanin “Jeeja” Vismistananda as Zen, an autistic girl who became a master of martial arts by copying everything she sees on television. When her mother falls ill, she embarks on a quest to collect on her old mob debts to pay for her chemotherapy. It’s not much of a plot, but it gives the Zen ample opportunity to kick butt in unthinkable ways.
The Bride, from Kill Bill Volumes 1 & 2
Never get between a Mama Bear and her cub. After the former assassin known only as The Bride is gunned down by her former employers, causing her to lose her unborn child, she awakens from a coma years later and exacts bloody, roaring revenge on the series of badasses who thought they got away with it. They were wrong. Dead wrong. Both volumes of Kill Bill feature knock down, drag out fight sequences but the obvious highlight is at the end of the first film, when Uma Thurman – wearing Bruce Lee’s track suit from Game of Death – slices and dices her way through an entire Triad just because they got in her way.
Not any of her characters. Just Michelle Yeoh. It’s a bit of a cheat, but we can’t just pick one performance from the leading lady of kung fu to put on the list. American audiences know her best from 2000’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon but by that point she’d already been an action legend for years in China. You can’t go wrong with Police Story 3: Super Cop, Yes, Madam, Wing Chun or The Heroic Trio either. Just seek her films out. You’ll be glad you did. She’s an ass-kicking goddess, and one hell of an actress to boot.
Flying Snow, from Hero
Zhang Yimou’s wuxia masterpiece Hero is a tricky film to critique, since the troublesome ending justifies a political mindset that most Americans probably don’t agree with. But that’s not why we’re here today. We’re here to celebrate the great Maggie Cheung’s performance as Flying Snow, a master swordswoman forced into conflict with her own true love over the turmoil befalling their country. In a series of beautifully shot action sequences – the way Yimou plays with color should be taught in schools – Cheung defines grace and power with her masterful strokes.
Trinity, from The Matrix
Okay, okay, so technically she's only a great martial artist in The Matrix, but the whole point of The Matrix is that everyone in the audience is actually living in The Matrix without realizing it. So in theory, if you ran into Carrie-Anne Moss in real life, there's a good chance that she'd kick your ever-loving butt just on the off-chance that you're an Agent. And she'd do that bullet time schtick and you'd get your neck snapped and you'd die and your snarky comments about her martial arts prowess wouldn't seem so smart now, would they, tough guy? Trinity: a bad ass in any reality, virtual or otherwise.
The Black Widow, from The Avengers
We weren't necessarily blown away by Scarlett Johansson's fighting, or her acting, in Iron Man 2 but if there's anything writer/director Joss Whedon can call his forte, it's crafting strong female action heroes. So it makes sense that in The Avengers, The Black Widow evolved from an underdeveloped character into one of the breakout leads, kicking all kinds of alien ass while crafting a unique place on the team as the character with a truly dark, dangerous past. Yes, yes, and she looks great in that skintight suit, but you're missing the point: she's the first female hero in the official film version of the Marvel Universe, and see if she can hold her own with no powers against an alien invasion, she belongs on the damned list.
Maggie Fitzgerald, from Million Dollar Baby
We’re not big fans of the actual movie of Million Dollar Baby – many of the characters are cartoons, it’s overly melodramatic and the premise is deeply flawed – but that doesn’t make Maggie Fitzgerald any less of a great fighter. Played by Hilary Swank (who won her second Oscar for the role), Maggie is down on her luck before an old boxing pro takes her under his wing, discovering quickly that the young woman has a talent for boxing… and ending her matches in seconds. It all goes tragically wrong, of course, but there’s no way we’d ever let ourselves be on the losing end of Maggie’s hard right.
China O'Brien, from China O’Brien
Unlike Michelle Yeoh, martial arts master Cynthia Rothrock never found her way into many great films. We love her pluckiness and enthusiastic “HYAHS” as much as anything, but the peak of her cinematic oeuvre is the relatively simplistic China O’Brien films, which finds the police officer title character returning home after a tragic incident on the job, only to have to clean up the small town of Beaver Creek, Utah, which has been overrun by thugs. Rothrock’s unassuming frame and girl-next-door appeal was a great contrast to her ability to kick your ass six ways from Sunday, and we wish she’d taken off in better projects.
The Whole Cast of Bitch Slap
Coming out just before the more heavily-promoted Sucker Punch, the independent Russ Meyer homage Bitch Slap featured a similarly over the top cast of female characters engaging in ridiculously overdramatized action sequences. The difference is that we actually liked this one, even though it’s also pretty flawed. Julia Voth, Erin Cummings and America Olivo star as criminals trying to find buried treasure in the desert, facing off against their enemies and each other, when they’re not barely resisting the urge to make out. Bitch Slap embraces the sexiness that Sucker Punch feared, and its goofy Roger Corman-esque story made a lot more sense besides. And its heroines are total badasses.
Full Disclosure: This article is sponsored by Relativity.