Before ‘Atomic Blonde’: The Greatest Female Action Stars of All Time

Charlize Theron fights two men in a kitchen

Charlize Theron fighting in Atomic Blonde | Focus Features

Action movies should feature tough heroes who aren’t afraid to punch, kick, or shoot their way out of a tight spot. And while stars featured in this genre used to only be men, those days are (thankfully) behind us. In fact, one of the most talked about action movies of this summer is Atomic Blonde, starring Charlize Theron.

From martial arts films to big-budget sci-fi movies, women have long proved that action isn’t just for men. Here are the female action stars that have mastered the art of kicking butt on the silver screen.

1. Pam Grier in Coffy, Foxy Brown, Jackie Brown, etc.

Pam Grier made her mark as an action star in classic 1970s blaxploitation films like Coffy and Foxy Brown. In those films, Grier established her persona of a sexy, but strong, woman who isn’t afraid to take matters of justice or revenge into her own hands.

Many blaxploitation films were low-budget productions with some stereotypical elements. But no single actress has helped blaze a trail for female action movie stars in America as much as Grier has. Not surprisingly, director Quentin Tarantino paid tribute to Grier’s strong action persona by casting her in his 1997 crime drama, Jackie Brown.

2. Michelle Yeoh in Wing Chun; Tomorrow Never Dies; Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, etc.

For many years, Michelle Yeoh was known for martial arts movies like Wing Chun and Jackie Chan’s Supercop franchise. Like Jackie Chan, Yeoh — a professionally trained ballet dancer — performed many of her own movie stunts.

Yeoh later starred as a spy in the 1997 James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies. But unlike typical “Bond girls,” Yeoh’s character was as tough as James Bond. In 2000, Yeoh starred in the critically-acclaimed Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. In the scene above from the original film, Yeoh demonstrates why she is one of the world’s top action movie stars.

3. Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor in Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

Nothing demonstrates your ability to kick butt like having to fight a killing machine from the future! Sarah Connor started out as a stereotypical “damsel in distress” character in the first Terminator movie. But by the time the machines sent another killer robot to assassinate her son in the sequel, Connor had become a weapons expert who would stop at nothing to defeat the new Terminator.

While Arnold Schwarzenegger was the star of Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Hamilton proved to be his equal when it came to action. As seen in the trailer above, Hamilton shows off her skills with plenty of fighting.

4. JeeJa Yanin in Chocolate (2008)

Also known as Yanin Vismitananda, she got her breakout role  in the martial arts film Chocolate. In that film, Yanin plays a character named Zen who has fast reflexes and the ability to mimic any moves she sees.

Zen’s unusual gifts soon come in handy as she tries to gather money for her mother’s medical bills. As seen in the trailer above, the talented JeeJa Yanin has plenty of opportunities to show off her incredible martial arts skills. Her performance in this film is even more amazing when you realize that she is performing her own stunts!

5. Sigourney Weaver as Ellen Ripley in the Alien film series

Ellen Ripley, the main heroine of the Alien film series, may be one of the most famous female action heroes ever seen. And after the original 1979 Alien film, the character of Ripley returned in various incarnations in the sequels that followed.

Ripley barely escaped the creature in the first film. But her character quickly evolved from survivor to creature killer in the sequels. Most noteworthy, is a toe-to-toe battle with the alien queen.

6. Zoe Saldana as Cataleya in Colombiana (2011)

While science fiction fans know her from her roles in Avatar and the rebooted Star Trek film franchise, Saldana got her action star chops in this movie about a vengeful assassin. In the film, her character kills several bad guys in several creative ways. As seen in the trailer above, Saldana’s character does an excellent job of fulfilling all the traditional action movie requirements.

7. Milla Jovovich as Alice in the Resident Evil film series

Milla Jovovich started her acting career with several romantic, comedic, and dramatic roles. However, after portraying the alien Leeloo in the The Fifth Element, Jovovich jumped into action movie roles. In 2002, Jovovich played Alice in Resident Evil, based on the video game series of the same name.

Soon, the success of Resident Evil secured her status as a major action film star. As seen above, Jovovich still delivers plenty of action in what might be the longest-running action film series with a female lead.


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