20 Of The Greatest Action Movie Heroines

Asian Editor; Hong Kong, China (@Marshy00)
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Katniss Everdeen, the reluctant survivalist and revolutionary at the heart of The Hunger Games, returns to our screens this week in Catching Fire. In tribute to this positive female role model embedded firmly in the action genre, we would like to look back at some of the other great Women of Action in films from around the world.

Almost immediately this project throws up hurdles and questions and tough decisions had to be made. The "final girl" of many a great horror movie has been excluded, as have the beautiful yet often-ineffectual Bond girls. Other decisions were also made along the way that may have seen your own personal favourite heroine omitted, such as not including "villains" - so you won't find the black widows from Species, Terminator 3 or Eve of Destruction in this list. 

By all means let us know in the comments below of any other female warriors deserving of our praise. I hope, at the very least, we can all be in agreement that every single one of the women who follow deserve their place alongside Indiana Jones, James Bond, John Matrix and The Dark Knight as cinematic icons of action. And apologies in advance to Cynthia Rothrock - I've never seen any of your films!

Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) - THE HUNGER GAMES (2012), THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE (2013)

While there's certainly no doubt Katniss would have had a tougher time getting to the screen were it not for the success of Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series, Katniss is far more of an action hero than Bella Swan ever was - even in the giddiest moments of Breaking Dawn. A natural hunter with keen archery and backwoods skills, Katnis was seemingly born to play in the lethal Hunger Games - which is fortunate, as to-date she's been subjected to them twice!

See also: Battle Royale (2000), The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones (2013)

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More about The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

  • AnaIvanovic2

    How the hell is Michelle Yeon and Milla Jovovich not in this list?

    Also, Jennifer Lawrence and Emma Watson? You have got to be kidding me. They're not action stars.

  • Carlos Fernandez 3

    A lot of Japanese actresses, I'd say. Seem to me Asian women get into action more than men. Although, like western actresses, they are always sexified.

  • Adam

    ummm i'm pretty sure HitGirl from Kickass could beat all these chicks into submission.

  • Would've loved to see Angela Bassett/Mace in Strange Days and Jenette Goldstein/Vasquez in Aliens.

  • marshy00

    Honestly I would have loved to have made this list 100 women long, but I really had to have a cut-off. Vasquez is an amazing character, but I decided that between Sarah Connor and Ripley, Jim Cameron's gung-ho gals were pretty well covered. Bassett also good, but hardly top tier in my opinion.

  • Jeff Davis

    Not sure who half of these were, but apparently the author is into anime / Asians. It’s a large fail for a list - #1 without even a doubt:

    Hamilton owned the role of Sarah Connor, going from a hard working single mother to essentially saving the f%$#ing world – all while balancing looking super hot with 100% bada$$ery.

    Hermione and Catniss are no brainers, I would put Hermione as number three even over Weaver and Fisher.

    Also they missed Sarah Gellar who would really be probably number one in a fair shake and no mention either for the lead actresses in Underworld (Kate Beckinsale) and Resident Evil (Milla jovovich) which would be like leaving Schwarzenegger, Ford and Stallone out of a men’s list. Also I would have thrown Portman in from The Professional and even mentioning Charlie’s Angels or Pfeiffer as Cat woman, really?

    F A I L

  • Alicia

    Sorry, but what movie characters did Sarah Michelle Gellar play that you think should have made this list?

  • marshy00

    Also, with the exception of Ripley, these aren't ranked, but are in chronological order.

  • marshy00

    Ok, a couple of things. Thanks for criticizing my over exposure of Asian characters, while everyone else criticized the lack of them. Everyone you mentioned is in fact included - guess you only looked at the pictures. Also, Sarah Michelle Gellar's BUFFY is a TV character, so doesn't count.

  • Jeff Davis

    I can only see the list as pictures, where is the text listing all 20?, it seems I am not the only one missing that.

  • marshy00

    You are not the only one, don't worry. There's text below each image summarising the character and other similar examples of each "type". Honest tech question: are you really not seeing this? I'm worried now. What you viewing on?

  • Mr. Cavin

    I am interested in the revelation that this captioning format isn't all that user-intuitive. TWITCH switched to this look a while ago (for click harvesting reasons?), and I thought it took a little getting used to, also. That is even more evident in this comment thread than usual.

  • Jeff Davis

    Alright I see the mention of the movies now in the descriptions, I rescind my FAIL rating.

  • Mr. Cavin

    Yeah, I'd have liked to have seen Pam Grier on this list, too. I know it sounds cliche, but it may have been even harder for a woman to carve out an action career back then than it is today. Honorable mentions could have included Tamara Dobson and Christina Lindberg.

    And to continue belaboring other people's points, I think Michelle Yeoh would have even fit quite correctly in a coed top ten list. Not only is she a bona fide action hero, but I think her contribution to the genre has been difficult to parallel. It is hard to see her position squandered on stick figures who navigate CGI set pieces. I don't mean to say that faking the adventure, one way or another, isn't valid action cinema; but gahd man, it's like leaving out Jet Li and including Toby McGuire.

  • 60hz

    sigh, no pam grier.

  • Bos

    I was like "where the fuck is Ripley?" until the end...she deserves to be first, or maybe you put her last to create some sort of suspense? xD

    She is THE female action hero, imho.

    Anyway, one of my personal favorite actress is out, Yuko Moriyama (Zeiram, Zeiram 2, Moon over Tao) but that's just personal, I can understand you cannot put the whole female action heroes in a short list like that.

    The only thing I don't understand is why, (talking about mainstream) you choose to put women like Angleina Jolie (really?), Jennifer Lopez (really?) and don't put LEGENDS like Milla Jovovich or Michelle Rodriguez? They are all hollywood's material but the ones i mentioned are women 10 times more 'action badass' than those escaped from their kitchens.

  • I like the heroines in "Painted Skin: The Resurrection". Zhou Xun and Zhao Wei, gave great performances and gave their characters life than the script ever could. One willing to fight for love, one wiling to fight for life, stereotypical roles in the fantasy genre made three-dimensional thanks to these actresses.

    Wu Chien-Lien would be another heroine that I like mainly because she surprised me of her performance in "Beyond Hypothermia". Though she's not a heroine in the film "Intruder", she makes one hell of a bad-ass performance in that one.

    Why wasn't Geena Davis mentioned for "The Long Kiss Goodnight"?

    The leads in "Peking Opera Blues" should be mentioned as well.

    Joyce Godenzi in "She Shoots Straight" is good too. I'm sure there's plenty more.

  • marshy00

    Agreed, Zhou and Zhao are both great in Painted Skin 2, which I thoroughly enjoyed. The Long Kiss Goodnight does get a mention.

  • Oops, my bad about "The Long Kiss Goodnight". Sorry about that.

    I also like to mention Rina Takeda, particularly in "Dead Sushi". Not only does she show her action chops, she also shows a great knack for comedy. Her cute, charming performance is a great change from her previous roles and I hope she does more roles like that more often

    Pam Grier in "Coffy". 'Nuff said.

    Rose McGowan in "Planet Terror". It would be nice to see her get the leg-up.

    Keira Knightley in the "Pirates of the Caribbean" films should be mentioned. Her character obviously was the most developed out of everyone as her character grown from proper lady to adventurous pirate.

    .

  • loval

    Nice list! What about the heroic trio? Michelle Yeoh, Maggie Cheung and Anita Mui!

  • Madrigalian

    Michelle Pfeiffer, Jennifer Lopez and Emma Watson? Are you serious? You list these "wanna be's" but leave out Milla Jojovich and Kate Beckinsdale? Hello? Joan of Arc, Ultraviolet, Resident Evil, Underworld I II III, Total Recall... I officially pronounce your list seriously and fatally flawed. Back to the mail room with you, intern.

  • marshy00

    As spirited and endearing as your comment is, it highlights quite plainly that you didn't read the feature, merely looked at the pictures. You wouldn't get far in the mail room or anywhere else with that kind of attitude. Here's a mop.

  • johnjohnphenom

    Where's hit girl from kick ass and Alice from resident evil (the movies got downright ridiculous but there's no denying she's a badass)

  • marshy00

    Alice gets a mention

  • Ninakat

    Great List, although I have to ask: Where is Ellen Ripley?? Are you considering her a "final girl" based on ALIEN? I think ALIENS changes the terms in which we see her evermore.

  • marshy00

    Guess you didn't read to the end

  • Ninakat

    Ha, I didn't get that last page! Obviously you are a like-minded genius.

  • garyml

    I'd cast a vote for JeeJa Yanin's work as Zen in "Chocolate."

  • marshy00

    She gets an honorable mention

  • cuttermaran

    A trully nonsense list without Michelle Yeoh and Etsuko Shihomi.
    Honestly I was thinking this is a promotion article for The Hunger
    Games.

  • APrince66

    Great list.

    Love me some classic Cheng Pei Pei

  • Kyozoku

    GREAT list! Nice job.

  • arturo

    That was a good list, i think that Patricia Arquettes character Alabama in True Romance deserves a mention, after all she did endure a vicious beating from James Gandolfini character to protect her man...Now that's true love...

  • marshy00

    She did indeed, but it's tough to argue that Alabama is an "action hero".

  • arturo

    Fair point, now try and do a top 20 female villains, it's harder than you think..

  • Qinlong

    How did you manage to not mention Michelle Yeoh ??

  • marshy00

    It wasn't easy - see my answer below.

  • Zeto

    Good list. With the exception of Katniss Everdeen. She is not match for Mitsuko Souma.

  • marshy00

    If you mean Mitsuko from BATTLE ROYALE, yes she was on the long list, but was too small a character to make the final cut.

  • Wow. You put Zhang Ziyi in there but no Michelle Yeoh?! I don't even know you any more, man!

  • Tender Branson

    Michelle Yeoh in Supercop. She stole the show.

  • Scott Dorian Dancer

    yes madam. the tour de force of female ass kickery?

  • marshy00

    Simply put, this is a list of characters rather than performers, and I couldn't settle on a single Michelle Yeoh performance that really stands out more prominently than any of these others. Zhang Ziyi may not be anything close to Yeoh in terms of skills, but her character in CTHD is genuinely iconic and helped usher in a new era of Chinese martial arts cinema. The die hard fans might not be happy about that, but it's true.

    But yes, Yeoh was just one figure that I was a little disappointed to leave out.

  • steve

    What's with all the comparisons between katniss everdeen/jennifer Lawrence and Bella swan /Kristen Stewart???...it's so predictable...& EVERYONE... ie ALL the columnists/commenters,etc.etc...basically the internets obsessed with comparing them to praise katniss(Jennifer) & diss Bella(Kristen)....& it's s stupid and pointless.....

  • Matt Zimmermann

    Ehhh, can't agree there....Michelle Yeoh's character in CTHD was far more heroic than Ziyi's, who was basically a petulant child with advanced martial arts skills until the end of the film.

  • Qinlong

    To be fair, Jessica Yang from the Supercop movies (that you did mention), Yu Shu Lien from Tiger/Dragon, or even Wai Lin from Tomorrow Never dies, all have to have more weight than McG's Charlie's Angels...

  • marshy00

    That might well be true, but this list got very long and unwieldy very quickly. The easiest way to whittle it down was to divide it into "types" of characters and then highlight some of the best - or most prominent - examples (hence Charlie's Angels getting in). There was always going to be someone's favourite that slipped through the net.

  • Yeah. My Christmas card list is very long and unwieldly too. Gonna have to make some cuts. Starting at the M's this year it seems. ;-)

  • thats what I was thinking as well. I saw Ziyi and I was like "ok Michelle Yeoh is last right? the best for last?" I was wrong, so sadly wrong!

  • MoiKnee

    I love how you guys included the anime heroine I immediately thought of (Makoto), and I didn't even think about Sen, but you make a good point. I'm happy to see them included among their live action counterparts. Great list all around!! I will definitely be checking out some of these movies that I haven't seen yet, thanks for the article!

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