a dive into nine female-led action films
Cue the training montages.
ATOMIC BLONDE (2017) Watching Charlize Theron comprehensively fuck people up is a joyful thing. (See also: Mad Max: Fury Road, The Old Guard et al.) When she’s doing it in objectively awesome fashions, accompanied by an ’80s synth soundtrack, it becomes transcendent. In a nod to every action film that starts with the hero’s girlfriend dying, here Theron plays Lorraine, a spy on a revenge mission for her dead boyfriend in crumbling Cold War Berlin. The Wall is about to come down, pretty much everyone is a spy, and her only declared ally (James McAvoy) turns out to be a bit of a dick. Lorraine is hurting, and she doesn’t have time for bullshit. She does, however, have time for German covers of David Bowie songs. If you’re looking for feel-good ultra-violence you can dance to, Atomic Blonde has you covered.
CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON (2000) Being a housewife must have been pretty terrible in 19th-century China. Instead, the female protagonists in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon choose to become a warrior (eternal kung fu goddess Michelle Yeoh), an evil governess (Pei-Pei Cheng) and a thief-slash-wandering-badass (Ziyi Zhang). Everyone here is searching for identity and just a bit of happiness – alongside a famous sword that Chow Yun-Fat decided to randomly just give away. Look, the storylines are mythic, and a bit silly and soapy, too. But we’re here for the action, and when our heroines fight, it’s gorgeous. Director Ang Lee’s gracefully choreographed fight scenes see combatants float through the air on invisible wires while punching, chopping, and poking each other with swords. Just like ballet, but with a death count. This is filmic violence as poetry, or maybe meditation.
BLACK WIDOW (2021) ‘Brainwashed-slash-coerced-slash-traumatised hot girl assassins’ should really be its own genre by now. There are so many (La Femme Nikita, Dollhouse, Red Sparrow) that this isn’t even Scarlett Johansson’s first go at the archetype – that was in 2014 with Luc Besson’s Lucy. What makes Black Widow different is we’re in the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe), Johansson is Natasha Romanoff – an actual Avenger – and she and her ersatz little sister, Yelena (Florence Pugh), are formerly brainwashed girl assassins struggling to free a heap of currently brainwashed girl assassins. Of course there are lots of big Marvel action sequences, but the film’s charm comes from its family story: as kids Natasha and Yelena were placed with a fake mum and dad as Soviet sleeper agents. Now, the fake family must pull together to see justice done (and drink lots of vodka). Pretty heart-warming for a film about violating female bodily autonomy.
GI JANE (1997) An icon of the action-chick genre, GI Jane now seems like a desperate warning from 1997 reminding us what happens when you forget to make your feminism intersectional. Demi Moore is Jordan, the first female trainee in the US Navy’s elite SEAL/CRT training program. She’s there because some lady politician reckons the biggest problem with American imperialism is it’s just too darn sexist. At first, Jordan makes it clear she doesn’t want to be a “poster girl for women’s rights”. Also, a deeply hetero sex scene establishes very quickly that she is Definitely! Not! A! Lesbian! Jordan goes through brutal military training – a bit like CrossFit with mud – to prove she’s one of the guys. Also, she gets ripped and shaves her head. The film tries to make a stand for equality, but thinks the best thing you can do with women’s rights is go and shoot some brown guys. Girl Power!
BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER (1992) Way before Sarah Michelle Gellar was slaying vamps on the small screen, The Chosen One had her own origin movie starring Kristy Swanson in the lead role and Luke Perry (yep, Dylan from 90210) as her stoner love interest, Pike. Where TV Buffy made the most of California gothic noir, movie Buffy is all in on campy, schlocky fun. A comedy slasher with cheerleading gags – though still with the requisite MMA fight sequences and snappy one-liners. There’s even a showdown at the big school dance! Pike is an extremely dishy dude-in-distress for much of the film (he faints a lot and needs frequent rescuing), and his support helps Buffy embrace her new badass identity as the Slayer. Yes, this film depicts a cis, straight male truly comfortable with female power! This is what the fantasy genre is all about.
MULAN (1998) We’re talking Disney’s original animated version here, rather than the recent live-action venture. (Better songs and also less complicity in Uyghur oppression. Google it.) But being a cartoon doesn’t stop our girl from legitimately kicking arse. After failing to find honour as a potential bride, Mulan cuts off her hair, dresses up as a boy, and joins the Imperial Chinese Army in place of her elderly father. Here she learns military skills like kung fu and hitting people with sticks. Eventually she’s kicked out of the army, but she saves China anyway. Hurrah! Mulan includes one of cinema’s greatest training montages (“I’ll Make a Man Out of You”, with the opening line, “Let’s get down to business to defeat the Hun”, should be on everyone’s cardio playlist). Plus, in Captain Li Shang, it has one of cinema’s hottest (and now canonically bi) animated boyfriends.
KILL BILL: VOLUMES 1 & 2 (2003/2004) Ready for an orgy of gore, violence and foot porn? Quentin Tarantino was inspired by exploitation films of the ’70s and ’80s for the 3.5 hours of bloody female vengeance he’s cooked up here. Uma Thurman is The Bride, and she’s right to be pissy. Her former boss, Bill, tried to kill her and her unborn child, aided by the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad – an all-lady hit team that once included The Bride. She’s been in a coma for four years, so of course as soon as she teaches herself to walk again, she’s out to skewer her enemies with many different knives and swords. This is Tarantino, so there’s retro styling and funky tunes and literal buckets of blood. But the enigmatic leading lady is what makes the film tick. A deadly mama who’ll stop at nothing to avenge her child.
BIRDS OF PREY (2020) Birds of Prey contains one of film’s most relatable fight scenes. Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) is getting over a break-up. She’s feeling low. All she wants is a cheesy grilled sandwich. Before she can take a bite, she’s surrounded by enemies. There’s a chase sequence, lots of violence. And just when you think it’s over, the sandwich dramatically falls to the ground, uneaten. Clearly, in this universe, despair and heartbreak rule. At least until our chaotic anti-heroine comes across a tween sidekick to protect, and a bunch of other violent femmes (including the legendary Rosie Perez) who gang together to beat up the bad guys. Harley is a manic pixie death girl, and her world is candy-coloured and cartoonishly violent. Also, you can tell this was directed by a woman because everyone SENSIBLY TIES UP THEIR HAIR before fighting. It’s really a lot of fun.