For a long time, the action genre has been dominated by hypermasculine protagonists saving the world and a damsel in distress or waging their own personal war. However, there had been a few exceptions with female leads in action-heavy films, examples being Foxy Brown, the Terminator franchise, and so on. The 2010s saw a considerable increase with action films starring the likes of Charlize Theron, Michelle Rodriguez, and Gina Carano among others.
The decade before that, the 2000s, also led to a major change in action conventions. Even though most of these films were still directed by male filmmakers, they still starred some strong female leads who overturned several stereotypes.
10 Doomsday (2008)- 6
Similarities can be drawn between Doomsday and Resident Evil as both deal with a contagious virus that can turn people into the undead. But Doomsday still has its own merits that make for an entertaining action watch. The sci-fi action thriller stars with the deadly ‘Reaper virus’ that wreaks havoc all over Scotland. Unable to find a solution, England quarantines all of Scotland, cutting off its ties from modern civilization.
However, when the virus later reaches London, British military operatives under Eden Sinclair (Rhona Mitra) plan to go back to the ravaged wasteland that Scotland has turned into, hoping to find a cure.
9 TIE: Resident Evil (2002)- 6.7
Based on the game series of the same name, Resident Evil and its numerous sequels aren’t examples of artistic cinema. But they have enough shoot-em-up zombie sequences and stuntwork to keep viewers engaged. The first film, arguably the finest in the series, starred two highly-popular action heroines, Mila Jovovich, and Michelle Rodriguez.
Jovovich plays Alice, an amnesiac who is sent on a mission with a covert military team to an underground lab facility. A virus from the lab can be highly contagious, turning humans into zombie-like creatures and it’s up to Alice and her allies to contain the situation. What follows is a whole lot of deadly traps, shooting, and hand-to-hand combat.
8 TIE: Wanted (2008)- 6.7
Angelina Jolie has had her share of action roles like the highly polarizing Lara Croft series in the 2000s, along with other thrillers like Salt in the 2010s. In the middle of this period, she starred in the over-the-top action fiesta that was Wanted.
She plays Fox, a member of The Fraternity, a cult-like organization of assassins being tasked with recruiting Wesley (James McAvoy) the son of a legendary Fraternity-alumnus. Jolie gets to play around with a lot of firearms, appearing in stylistic car chases and one-on-one combat, with a final twist to her character’s arc towards the third act.
7 TIE: Death Proof (2007)- 7
The exploitation genre of cult B-movies yielded outdated stereotypes when it came to the female characters, either sexualizing them or butchering them. Quentin Tarantino attempted to subvert these tropes in his Grindhouse feature, Death Proof. The film centers around a homicidal maniac of a driver (Kurt Russell) who gets a ‘high’ out of killing women in high-speed car crashes.
When a group of four women understands his intentions, they manage to give him justice in their own gas-pedaling ways. Death Proof stars Rosario Dawson, Tracie Thoms, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, along with legendary stunt-artist Zoë Bell (who also doubled for Uma Thurman in Kill Bill).
6 TIE: Underworld (2003)- 7
Similar to the Resident Evil franchise, the Underworld series didn’t get favorable critical acclaim but still managed to rely on enough high-octane action to garner a loyal fan following. The first film’s central character is Selene (Kate Beckinsale) an orphaned vampire who attempts to save a human doctor from the vampire’s arch enemies, the Lycans (werewolves).
The film is a stylishly-executed action fantasy that builds upon a rich history of werewolves and vampires, marking a change from the overdone, cliched tropes on such cinematic monsters.
5 House Of Flying Daggers (2004)- 7.5
Another martial arts-driven romance film like Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, House of Flying Daggers takes place in the background of rebel groups that rise against the Tang Dynasty in China of the 9th Century. As royal police officers investigate the workings of one such group known as House of the Flying Daggers, they suspect a dancer called Mei of being a member of such factions.
Zhang Ziyi plays Mei, a dagger-throwing rebel who robs corrupt officials and distributes her loot amongst the poor. As two officers tail her, a game of cat-and-mouse ensues that tests the characters’ loyalties.
4 Lady Vengeance (2005)- 7.6
The final chapter in noted South Korean director Park Chan-wook’s Vengeance trilogy, Lady Vengeance features Lee Yeong-ae in the titular role. More of a crime thriller than an adrenaline-fueled action flick, the film offers a blood-curdling tale of revenge as a mother is wrongfully incarcerated for thirteen years, and separated from her child.
Once she’s out of the prison, her newfound prison alliances help her in waging a full-blown war at her foes. It’s a plotline that has been used before in several stories, but Lady Vengeance features its director’s classic style of brutal violence and a committed performance by its lead to get over the familiar tropes.
3 Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)- 7.8
Malaysian actress Michelle Yeoh was already garnering popularity in the 1990s, but it’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon that drove her fame to a whole new level. Considered to be one of her finest films, she plays Yu Shu Lien, a master martial artist who’s proficient in fighting with swords and unleashing peak human strength in leaping over distances.
The film revolves around a famed swordsman and Yu Shu Lien who embark on an adventure in 18th century China to find a highly-valuable sword that goes missing. The film launched the international career of director Ang Lee and is one of the most popular Mandarin films of all time.
2 Kill Bill: Volume 2 (2004)- 8
The finale to Quentin Tarantino’s bloody saga, Kill Bill: Volume 2 adds more backstory to The Bride’s (Uma Thurman) origin and her intentions for seeking revenge. Having already killed most of her backstabbing partners, she finally sets out to murder her ex-boss and fiance Bill.
Rather than its usual dose of action, the film also touches upon its martial arts cinema influence, providing scenes that explain how the protagonist ended up learning her skills. Not as fast-paced as its predecessor, the film also delves on a few philosophical concepts of morality and violence as The Bride plans her revenge.
1 Kill Bill: Volume 1 (2003)- 8.1
Wielding a samurai sword and donning the iconic yellow tracksuit popularized by Bruce Lee, Uma Thurman’s The Bride has to be one of the most iconic action characters in pop culture. In Kill Bill: Volume 1, Beatrix Kiddo aka The Bride is revealed to be a member of the Deadly Vipers Assassination Squad, the team that stood by her and later betrayed her for an unknown reason.
Waking up from a coma, she’s intent on seeking answers from the past and this leads to bloody encounters with some other memorable female action leads like Cottonmouth (Lucy Liu), Copperhead (Vivica A Fox), and Elle Driver (Daryl Hannah).
NEXT: Quentin Tarantino: 5 Reasons Why Kill Bill Vol.1 Is Better Than Vol.2 (& 5 Reasons Why Vol. 2 Is The Best)
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