Once upon a time, not that long ago, men-owned the ass-kicking corner of major motion pictures. That is, until directors like James Cameron, Ridley Scott. Eventually, Quentin Tarantino came along, flipping the gender of their lead, and creating a new wave of incredible female action heroes. They are still a little too few and far between, but the ratio is evening out, as evidence by Charlize Theron’s Atomic Blonde hitting theaters this weekend.
Here are five of the kick-ass female action heroes who came before the Atomic Blonde. One might have more in common with her than the others…
Honorable Mention – Sarah Connor (Terminator 2: Judgment Day)
The evolution of Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor, from the mild-mannered princess in trouble in The Terminator to the chiseled, manic survivalist in T2, is a fascinating character transition in modern action movies. Connor is moving with a single motivation in the sequel, a machine even more so than Schwarzenegger at times. And Hamilton sells the role. But is she really an action hero? Her decisions seem rash at times; her mind seems unstable too often to be relied upon, which pushes her just out of the top five.
Evelyn Salt (Salt)
Angelina Jolie’s wrongly-accused agent on the run film is often overlooked when it comes to these lists, but Philip Noyce’s movie works because of Jolie’s incredibly physical performance. If there is one thing Jolie can do, it is dedicate herself to the physicality of her roles, and she flashes otherworldly athleticism at times. The story is standard, but that is intentional. It allows Noyce to show off in the set pieces, and Jolie is game.
Charli Baltimore (The Long Kiss Goodnight)
A.K.A. Samantha Caine. Had The Long Kiss Goodnight waited twenty years, it would have turned into a sizable hit. A screenplay from Shane Black, directed by Renny Harlin, it sings of 2016 nostalgia-fueled reappraisal. Gene Davis is terrific as the amnesia-stricken assassin, and Black’s screenplay takes unconventional routes with its female action hero. It’s time for this one to make its rounds again.
2015 was the moment Charlize Theron transitioned to an action star. From her role here, as the rebellious, one-armed soldier of Immortan Joe, Theron hopped aboard the Fast and Furious franchise train and, this weekend, it’s Atomic Blonde. Theron has the size and physical build to be an incredible action star, and her Furiosa becomes the central character in Mad Max: Fury Road. She is tough and determined, and she can hang with Max at every turn.
A.K.A. Beatrix Kiddo. Uma Thurman’s The Bride was the sea change. This was the moment in time where female action heroes were front and center, and Tarantino’s revenge opus showcased the ass-kicking skills of Thurman through two terrific films. And I won’t be one of THOSE people who say they liked Kill Bill, Volume 2 better than 1, because Volume 1 has the most iconic female action hero look of all time: The Yellow Jumpsuit.
We have reached The Godmother of Them All. Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley is, unofficially (but officially, really), the birth of the female action star. Driven by a singular hatred for the xenomorph, Ripley is consistently the most intelligent person in every room, even when idiots ignore her logic. Ridley Scott’s Alien birthed her, but James Cameron let her shine in the sequel.