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)
Golden Swallow (Cheng Pei Pei) - COME DRINK WITH ME (1966), GOLDEN SWALLOW (1968)
Hong Kong Cinema is packed full of incredibly skillful female warriors, but perhaps the most famous is Golden Swallow - the daughter of an army general sent to rescue her brother when he is abducted by bandits and kung fu masters. The film launched the career of Cheng Pei Pei, whose background in Peking opera proved a popular route for subsequent female martial arts stars, and was followed two years later by a sequel, Golden Swallow, which saw our heroine struggle to clear her name after being framed for a violent rampage.
See also: My Young Auntie (1981), My Lady is the Boss (1983)
Bonnie Parker (Faye Dunaway) - BONNIE AND CLYDE (1967)
Based on true events, Bonnie Parker and lover Clyde Barrow (Warren Beatty) cut a swathe through Depression-era Texas, robbing banks and living recklessly in a way that resonated with the counter-culture generation of the 1960s. Arthur Penn's film famously romanticised events and Dunaway brings a sultry cool and effortless glamour to Parker that her true-life counterpart reportedly lacked, but her laissez-faire attitude to life, the law and everything else made her a fearsome yet beguiling force to be reckoned with.
See also: True Romance (1993), Natural Born Killers (1994)
Matsushima Nami aka Sasori (Kaji Meiko) - FEMALE PRISONER #701: SCORPION (1972), JAILHOUSE 41 (1972), BEAST STABLE (1973), GRUDGE SONG (1973)
After being screwed over by her corrupt cop boyfriend and the yakuza, the beautiful Nami is locked away in the worst prison in all Japan, where she faces incredible hardship and torture from both guards and fellow inmates. Over the course of four films, Nami - aka "Scorpion" - will escape and be incarcerated multiple times, but whenever, however she can, she will have her revenge on the men and women who wronged her.
Played by the stunning Kaji Meiko, Sasori has become the template and inspiration for every angel of vengeance to grace the screen since - including Kaji's other immortal creation, Lady Snowblood - but the original remains the most deadly of them all.
See also: Ms. 45 (1981), Dirty Weekend (1993), Sympathy For Lady Vengeance (2005)
Princess Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) - STAR WARS (1977), THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980), RETURN OF THE JEDI (1983)
Part-Maid Marion, part-Barbarella, Princess Leia defied the standard portrayal of the damsel in distress, proving more than capable of taking care of business, whether in a gun fight with Imperial Storm Troopers or standing up to the political bullying of the evil Empire. Leia survives being captured on multiple occasions and, initially at least, even resists the wily charms of "scruffy looking nerf herder" Han Solo. In a hugely successful film series that seemed to speak almost exclusively to young boys, Leia remains one of the most enduringly strong and positive female role models in all of science-fiction.
See also: Barbarella (1968), Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984), Star Wars: Episodes I-III(1999 - 2005)
Hoshi Izumi (Yakushimaru Hiroko) - SAILOR SUIT AND MACHINE GUN (1981)
When her Yakuza father dies, young schoolgirl Izumi inherits his clan and must take charge and lead them through a particularly bloody turf war. Before long the misfit teenager has taken up arms herself, and with the classic catchphrase "Kaikan!" is soon mowing down her enemies in the manner described in the film's title. The legacy of Sailor Suit and Machine Gun looms large over pulp Japanese cinema. Without this 1981 action comedy, based on a novel that also inspired two TV series, there may have been no Battle Royale, no Gogo Yubari (Kill Bill) and certainly no Machine Girl - or any of Iguchi Noboru's schoolgirl heroines for that matter.
See also: Battle Royale (2000), The Machine Girl (2008), Vampire Girl Vs. Frankenstein Girl (2009)
Nikita (Anne Parillaud) - LA FEMME NIKITA (1990)
A cop-killing drug addict inexplicably given a second chance at life, Nikita is recruited into a secret government agency to operate as a sleeper assassin for the French authorities. Cleaning up her act and provided with a new identity, she attempts to put her life back on track and even start a relationship with the dreamy Jean-Hugues Anglade, but at a moment's notice she must be ready to drop everything and go kill people whenever Tcheky Karyo calls. Under the slick direction of Luc Besson, Nikita was a new kind of action heroine - elegant, seductive, yet incredibly deadly - and has been copied, imitated, remade and adapted ever since - but no one has matched Parillaud's effortless Euro cool.
See also: Point of No Return (1993), The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996), Salt (2010)
Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) - THE TERMINATOR (1984), TERMINATOR 2: JUDGEMENT DAY (1991)
James Cameron has always shown an interest in putting women at the centre of his action films, and none of his characters has seen a greater transformation than Sarah Connor. Back in 1984 she was just another moped-driving waitress struggling to pay the rent on time and find a man who wasn't a douchebag. But after Michael Biehn's time-travelling soldier arrived, hot on the heels of Arnold Schwarzenegger's mindless killing machine, her life was forever changed. By the time 1991 rolled round, sure she was locked up in a mental asylum, but Connor was also a hardened battle-ready warrior, dead set on prepping her son, John, to lead a revolution against Skynet and the machines. Sarah may have gotten her training from mercenaries away from official Basic Training, but she might just be the best female soldier in the movies.
See also: G.I. Jane (1997), Hanna (2011), Haywire (2011)
Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer) - BATMAN RETURNS (1992)
Some people will argue that there has never been a truly successful cinematic adaptation centred on a female superhero. It's 2013 and there has still yet to be a single Wonder Woman movie. Probably the most successful transition has been that of DC's Catwoman, who has to-date appeared in three films, played by three different actresses, and none better than Michelle Pfeiffer's sultry, playful, Bride of Frankenstein-esque incarnation from Tim Burton's Batman Returns. She kills, she fights, she seduces and most importantly, evades capture and lives to fight another day. Anne Hathaway was arguably the best thing about Chris Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises, but even her 99-percenter couldn't best Pfeiffer for comic book villainy. And as for Halle Berry's Catwoman? Mee-ouch!
See also: X-Men (2000), Elektra (2005), Iron Man 2 (2010)
Major Kusanagi Motoko - GHOST IN THE SHELL (1995)
Japanese anime has always been a bountiful pool of gung-ho female protagonists, even if they are regularly fetishised above and beyond their abilities in the field. Major Kusanagi Motoko from the ever-expanding Ghost in the Shell series is perhaps the best example of this - a cyborg law enforcement operative who commands a squad of Tokyo's Public Security Section 9. While her appearance and abilities do differ between her different incarnations within the series, in Oshii Mamoru's landmark film, she is quiet, contemplative, and forever wrestling with the question of her own humanity. Physically, however, she is highly skilled in both weapons and hand-to-hand combat, as well as displaying a high intellect, if perhaps at the expense of nuanced interpersonal skills.
See also: Aeon Flux (1991), The Matrix (1999), Appleseed (2004), Paprika (2006)
San - PRINCESS MONONOKE (1997)
While Walt Disney may be responsible for bringing the most animated princesses to life, precious few of them could be considered much more than damsels in distress. Miyazaki Hayao over at Japan's Studio Ghibli, conversely, was responsible for the brilliant Princess Mononoke (or "Spirit Princess"), which featured San, a feral, Mowgli-esque young woman who was raised by wolves in the magical forests. San has a keen understanding and love of nature and the powerful forces that reside therein. She is also a fierce warrior, and over the course of the film, learns to trust the destructive humans when she meets and falls in love with the dashing young Prince Ashitaka.
See also: Pocahontas (1995), Mulan (1998), Brave (2012)
U.S. Marshal Karen Sisco (Jennifer Lopez) - OUT OF SIGHT (1998)
Cinema is full of female cops and law enforcers, but few of them ever get the chance to be more than a struggling rookie, object of prejudice, or partner to the real hero. Karen Sisco, however, proves more than a match for habitual bank robber and prolific jailbreaker Jack Foley (George Clooney), and even when his undeniable charms cause her trigger finger to waver, she keeps her eye on the prize and ultimately gets her man. She is damn handy with a shotgun, loves her daddy, enjoys watching the Superbowl, and is a knockout to boot. Lopez would never come close to being this good onscreen again, and Sisco remains the definitive screen incarnation of female law enforcement.
See also: Police Story 3: Supercop (1992), Robocop (1987), Blue Steel (1989), The Heat(2013)
Jen Yu (Zhang Ziyi) - CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON (2000)
The new millennium saw a huge ressurgence in the popularity of classic Chinese wuxia films, whose success worldwide became bigger than ever before. This surge is almost solely due to Ang Lee's surprise hit, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and it was Zhang Ziyi's plucky young sword thief that audiences remember best. Daughter of a rich governer, the rebellious Jen Yu has been secretly training in martial arts for years. Looking to escape an arranged marriage and be reunited with her secret lover, Jen steals the legendary sword, Green Destiny, only to find herself up against Chow Yun Fat and Michelle Yeoh's veteran kung fu masters.
See also: Hero (2002), House of Flying Daggers (2004), Chocolate (2008), The Grandmaster (2013)
Natalie Cook, Dylan Sanders, Alex Munday (Cameron Diaz, Drew Barrymore, Lucy Liu) - CHARLIE'S ANGELS (2000), CHARLIE'S ANGELS: FULL THROTTLE (2003)
In the original TV series, they were plucked from the Los Angeles Police Academy, but the backstories of the cinematic incarnations of Charlie's Angels are less specific. Natalie, Dylan and Alex are gorgeous, ingenious, and incredibly successful private detectives, working for an anonymous employer who converses with them only via radio and telephone. They each have particular areas of expertise - be it combat, tech or what have you - but all are masters (mistresses?) of disguise and will find any excuse to go undercover and dress up in a series of outlandish and revealing outfits. Back in the 70s, the TV series was labelled "Jiggle TV", succeeding only on the looks of its stars. What degree McG's film versions have advanced that theory is up for debate, but both proved successful at the box office, underscoring that female stars could carry a movie - and a franchise - on their own.
See also: So Close (2002), Naked Weapon (2002), DOA: Dead or Alive (2006), Sucker Punch (2011)
Lara Croft (Angelina Jolie) - LARA CROFT: TOMB RAIDER (2001), LARA CROFT TOMB RAIDER: THE CRADLE OF LIFE (2003)
Falling somewhere between Indiana Jones and Jamie Hewlett's Tank Girl, Lara Croft is a gun-toting, back-flipping, artefact-hunting teenage fantasy that came to life first through Eidos Interactive video games and later embodied by a CG-enhanced Angelina Jolie in two middling action adventures. Combining intelligence, education, family wealth, good looks, physical agility and a penchant for thrill-seeking, Lara Croft broke into the mainstream as an icon of pneumatic, adolescent idolatry much like the heroines of Japanese anime. Regardless of her origins, Lara has influenced countless other characters in the gaming world and on the cinema screen for close to 20 years.
See also: Resident Evil (2002), Underworld (2003)
Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) - The HARRY POTTER series (2001-2011)
While I did my best to avoid sidekicks and secondary characters (hence the relegation of The Matrix's Trinity to a footnote of the anime heroines), there seemed no justifiable reason for excluding Harry Potter's best friend, Hermione Granger. From the series' very beginnings, Hermione has showed greater intelligence, resourcefulness, ability and courage than Harry and Ron combined, who would have died many times over long before the reemergence of Voldemort were it not for the assistance and intervention of their more capable female friend.
See also: The Fifth Element (1997), Star Wars: Episodes IV-VI (1977-1983)
The Bride (Uma Thurman) - KILL BILL: VOL.1 (2003), KILL BILL: VOL.2 (2004)
Tarantino is repeatedly praised for his strong female characters, and none deserves that acclaim more than the vengeful Beatrix Kiddo in his two-part martial arts/spaghetti western/revenge opus. A bizarre amalgam of Lady Snowblood and Bruce Lee, born in an Asian grindhouse only to be raised at the Drive-In, The Bride was suckled on a diet of samurai and yakuza flicks, Shaw Brothers martial arts films and Sergio Corbucci westerns. She is the orphan child of every B-Movie cliche, yet infused with Tarantino's infectious love of trash, sleaze and violence. The Bride exists only as a result of almost every other character on this list existing first, yet somehow manages to be something special, unique and worthy of recognition.
See also: Lady Snowblood (1973), Leon: The Professional (1994), Sympathy For Lady Vengeance (2005)
Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) - ALIEN (1979), ALIENS (1986), ALIEN3 (1992), ALIEN: RESURRECTION (1997)
Ripley is without question the greatest woman of action in all of world cinema. She evolves through necessity and survival to lead trained marines into battle against an otherworldly species, before assuming responsibility for the world in which she has helped shape by sacrificing herself. She endures and survives the most extreme conditions, suffers incredible losses, fights for those she loves - and for herself - without ever relinquishing her femininity. She proves herself as a mother and as a lover, she questions authority when necessary and takes charge when those in control prove unable or unsatisfactory to continue. Ripley is not a perfect organism, but embodies everything you could possibly want in a cinematic action hero. All other priorities rescinded.