Adventures In Celluloid
Film critic Dominic Corry celebrates, clarifies and justifies his love for all things film.

Dominic Corry: The best female-led action movies

Dominic Corry names the best five action movies with a female lead.
Scarlett Johansson in a scene from 'Lucy'. Photo / AP
Scarlett Johansson in a scene from 'Lucy'. Photo / AP

This week sees the New Zealand release of Lucy, a new action thriller starring Scarlett Johansson as a young woman who gains superpowers when an experimental drug leaks inside her stomach.

It's not the best film ever made, but it contains quite a bit of decent action, during which Johansson kicks considerable butt. The film has been a relative hit in America, which in basic Hollywood logic shows the bean counters that there is a genuine mainstream audience for action movies with a female lead.

There's a long, proud tradition of tough female supporting characters in action movies (Karen Allen In Raiders of the Lost Ark; Carrie Anne-Moss in The Matrix; Tyne Daly in The Enforcer), but as interesting as these characters can sometimes get, they're ultimately defined by their supporting status.

As the convincingly deadly Black Widow, Johnansson has been the token girl amongst the otherwise all-male Avengers across three films, and it took a Frenchman to give her her first action lead.

Lucy writer/director Luc Besson has always been a proponent of female action heroes, a proclivity which stretches through his films La Femme Nikita; The Professional (sorta) and The Fifth Element. He's also produced a number of films featuring girls who can hold their own (such as Colombiana), and he even made a biopic about the original ass-kicking heroine, Joan of Arc.

The star of that film, Milla Jovovich, has been front and centre of her current husband Paul WS Anderson's Resident Evil films. Which while valiantly forwarding the cause for action movies starring ass-kicking ladies, are simply too generically cruddy to be held up as great examples of anything. Ditto: The Kate Beckinsale-led Underworld films.

Earlier this year, Edge of Tomorrow featured a superlatively bad-ass woman in the form of Emily Blunt, who was fantastic in the role and made Tom Cruise look like a whimpering child in comparison. But still, Cruise was the film's lead character.

The public appetite for female action heroes is undoubtedly a lot greater than the Hollywood machine presumes, but when the amount of money that goes into a decent action movie is considered, the decision-makers suddenly get very old fashioned.

It usually takes a particularly driven director with some degree of clout to get a lady-centric action movie through the system, and there don't appear to be a huge number who even try. When one does get through, sometimes the result is a turd like Karyn Kusama's hugely insulting 2005 adaptation of Peter Chung's cult cartoon Aeon Flux. Or perhaps G.I. Jane (1997).

If there was ever a great female action movie waiting to happen, it is a respectful adaptation of Aeon Flux. There's talk of The Expendabelles, but I don't think anyone is genuinely excited about that prospect. Except maybe Cynthia Rothrock.

Here I am going to list, in order, what I consider to be the best five action movies in which a female plays the main character. And in which said female kicks ass.

1. Aliens (1986)

Sigourney Weaver in the movie Alien.

Apart from Luc Besson, there's no director more actively interested in ass-kicking women than James Cameron. I wonder what his mother was like.

Five years before he gave us the iconically bad-ass Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2, he directed the greatest action film ever made. And it just happened to feature a very capable woman as its main character.

But Cameron didn't simply slot a female into a male role - Ripley's maternal instincts plays a huge part in her arc, making her one of the most interesting action leads of all time. Cameron loves to populate his films with ass-kicking girls, such as Jeanette Goldstein as the intimidating Vasquez in this film ("You always were an asshole, Gorman"), and Zoe Saldana and Michelle Rodriguez in Avatar.

Cameron's ex-wife Kathryn Bigelow (Oscar winner for The Hurt Locker) really needs to do something in this arena - she dabbled previously with films like Blue Steel (starring an ass-kicking Jamie Lee Curtis) and Strange Days (written by Cameron), in which the film's designated ass-kicker was played very convincingly by Angela Bassett. I reckon Bigelow could make a transcendent Aeon Flux movie.

2. The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996)

Geena Davis in The Long Kiss Goodnight. Photo / New Line Cinema

Quite possibly the most underrated action movie of all-time, this wonderful effort scripted by Shane Black (Iron Man III) and directed by the once-great Renny Harlin (Cliffhanger; Die Hard 2) starred Harlin's then-wife Geena Davis as an amnesiac assassin who goes on the run when her past life rears its head. So yeah, it's basically a female version of The Bourne Identity, but it came out years before the inferior Matt Damon film, and is ass-kickingly awesome in variety of ways.

Davis' Charly Baltimore is one of cinema's most classically hard-boiled female killers, and she plays wonderfully against Samuel L. Jackson in the ostensible 'girl' role. This movie's failure at the box office probably set the cause back a few years.

I thought about The Long Kiss Goodnight wistfully while watching 2010's Salt, which evoked the earlier film in ways that did not benefit the Angelina Jolie vehicle. Still, Jolie gave pretty good action lead in Wanted (2008). But not in Mr and Mrs. Smith (2005).

3. Kill Bill Volumes 1 and 2 (2003 & 2004)

Uma Thurman in Kill Bill.

Quentin Tarantino is one of the handful of directors who could've gotten a film like this (these) made, and he's the only one that would bother - Kill Bill stands tall as the ultimate female-centric action epic. Uma Thurman's Beatrix Kiddo proved herself a formidable cinematic force, and although her ultimate (titular) nemesis was totally a dude, she had a take down a phalanx of uniquely bad-ass women along the way, played with ass-kicking conviction by Vivica A. Fox, Lucy Liu and Daryl Hannah. Not to mention Gogo Yubari.

2004 documentary Double Dare is an essential companion piece to the Kill Bill films, and details the key role Kiwi stuntwoman Zoë Bell played in portraying The Bride's physical prowess.

QT further explored girly bad-assery with 'our' Zoë in Death Proof (2007), in which she played her bad-ass self.

Tarantino's buddy Robert Rodriguez is also very concerned with women who can kill you, but his deadly female characters are invariably sexual creatures first.

4. D.E.B.S. (2004)

The cast of D.E.B.S.

This action comedy succeeds in all the areas where the smarmy Charlie's Angels films failed. Which is to say, it's a smiley, happy girl-centric adventure that isn't totally insufferable. In fact, it's pretty darn winsome. Not a success upon its initial release, D.E.B.S. has become a minor cult treasure in the decade since. The film follows a quartet of school girls recruited into a secret organsation which trains them to be spies. Bursting at the seams with charm and wit, this benefits greatly from being willing to place a lesbian romance at its core.

The girls are all total pin-ups, yet it all still somehow feels progressive.

5. The Hunger Games (2010)

Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games. Photo / AP

Divergent is simply too soft to qualify in this arena - at least The Hunger Games has a few barbed edges. The shallowness of most YA adaptations render them pretty inert, but it would be hasty to dismiss Jennifer Lawrence's Katniss - she's something of an instant cinematic icon, impressive with a bow, and a far cooler role model than that sullen Bella Swan.

What are you favourite female-led action movies? Don't say Tank Girl! Does Sin City count? Bigelow for Aeon Flux - thoughts? Comment below!

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