The Best Movie Ever: Female Action Heroes
There’s an old and long-since outdated belief that action movies starring women don’t do well at the box office, which is a big part of the reason why Hollywood doesn’t make many of them. That’s crap of course. There’s tons of successful movies featuring a female action hero. Will Lucy, this weekend’s new release from Luc Besson (who is himself no stranger to female driven action, having directed La Femme Nikita and produced Colombiana), prove to be yet another exception to the rule? Will it be the Best Female Action Hero Movie Ever?
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Perhaps… but perhaps not. We won’t know for a few more days, but in the meantime we asked CraveOnline‘s film critics – William Bibbiani, Witney Seibold, Fred Topel and Brian Formo – to present their picks for the best female action hero movie ever made. The movie must be in the action genre (or at least arguably in the action genre), and star a woman in either the leading or co-leading role.
What did our critics pick? You’ll find out below. What would YOU pick? Tell us by voting for your favorite female action hero movie at the bottom of the page!
Is Yuki Kashima (Meiko Kaji) a hero? She does kill a lot of bad guys. But (for story purposes) she never had a chance to be good, either. Her mother’s last words were whispered into her newborn daughter’s ear (in prison), telling her that she needs to dedicate her life to killing the men who raped her mother and killed her father (errr, her would’ve-been-stepfather?). Talk about a death wish. Yuki is born a shell of a person. Yuki Kasima becomes Lady Snowblood and Lady Snowblood is a spray-fest of fun. Enough to be the best female action hero ever? You bet. She has one purpose and that’s to kick ass. She has a sword for a weapon. And that kicks ass.
It’d be damn impossible to talk about Toshiya Fujita’s 1973 orgy of blood and decapitations without mentioning/comparing Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, Vol. 1 & 2. If Vol. 1 is Tarantino spinning a East-meets-West greatest hits compilation, then a lot of those hits come from Lady Snowblood: the revenge list, the camera introducing each villain via an upward-tilt pan, the blood that sprays like a hose from each sword slice and the raised for revenge storyline of O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Lui).
Tarantino’s Vol. 2 is his singular East-West album. It’s a better film. But it also lacks action (maybe just in comparison to the bloodbath of the first entry and also the bloodbath here). In crossing off the list of all the things that make Vol. 1 awesome, most of them are hints, winks and nods to Lady Snowblood. Clearly Fujita’s got the choice cuts. If you haven’t already, do yourself a favor and spin his entire album. His heroine is a lady in white. Like a bride. She’s elegant. And covered in blood.
I have to side with the Academy on this one. The only female action hero to earn an Oscar nomination for Best Actress also happened to star in the best female action hero movie: Aliens.
The sole survivor of Ridley Scott’s Aliens is a more fully realized character than most action heroes of any gender, dealing with the trauma of the previous film in a relatable way but powering through, evolving into a full-fledged hero who faces her nightmares one-on-one. Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) is initially underestimated but more capable in a crisis than any of the male (or at least macho) Colonial Marines who bluster their way into battle and barely make it back alive. She’s tough, but also feminine, flirtatious and even maternal, particularly in the director’s cut which clarifies that she lost her daughter between the first film and the second.
After she develops a bond with the lone survivor of the second film’s alien massacre, a young girl named Newt (Carrie Henn), she comes face-to-face with the Alien Queen, who likewise only wants to protect her children. Lots of action movies relegate female characters to fighting each other at the end of the movie (heck, sometimes that’s the only reason one or more of the female characters was created at all), but the clash of tough mothers at the end of Aliens is about being a strong woman, embracing that which makes the characters unique while placing them in powerful positions usually occupied by men in other action movies. Aliens is a great movie in a myriad of ways, but its protagonist is one of the most important reasons why it’s a classic.
Okay, you may think Bound is not an action movie because it doesn’t fulfill a certain quota of fights, chases or explosions. I contend that it has considerably more action than films like Death Wish, which is considered an action movie but really only has a few gunshots at all. The heroines of Bound are facing a violent world and taking on the mob with their strength and wit, so they are definitely my favorite female action heroes and Bound is the best female action movie, even if it has less Kung Fu than Kill Bill.
The Wachowskis first movie was a bold introduction to their skills as storytellers, skills in a basic form without special effects, but handling the complexities of their own story as masters. Violet (Jennifer Tilly) seduces her new neighbor Corky (Gina Gershon) into helping her frame Violet’s boyfriend Caesar (Joey Pants!) for stealing from his mob bosses, while they sneak off with the dough themselves. The perfect plan doesn’t end up working perfectly, but the narrative device of mixing the planning with the execution drives the film’s twists with a breathtaking pace. Sequences of Hitchcockian suspense with the cops and Violet keeping Caesar duped are brilliant.
Violet and Corky are great female action heroes, and I would totally watch the further adventures of Violet and Corky, but if this is likely all we’ll ever get, they’ve certainly left it all on the table. Milla Jovovich has fought a lot more zombies, “Alias” did five seasons and I will always love Rene Russo and Linda Hamilton, but Bound is the best female action hero movie ever.
Many critics object to the notion of a “strong female lead,” because the phrase is so often misinterpreted. Both filmmakers and fans get tripped up on the word “strong,” thinking it to mean, rather directly, physical strength. If you put a sword in a woman’s hand and show her kicking a buncha ass, then she’s a strong character, right? I would argue that most female action heroes – especially those with swords in their hands, hello Freud – are essentially male action heroes with boobs. And those are not strong characters. Those are boring characters. The strong ones don’t even have to be physically strong, they just have to be interesting, complex, and possessed of their own agency.
And while she may not be the richest and most complex action heroine the world has ever seen, I think The Bride (a.k.a. Beatrix Kiddo) from Quentin Tarantino’s action epic Kill Bill can make a fine American stand-in for all the awesome kung-fu action heroes that preceded her. The Bride can expertly handle a sword and murder people with ease (as shown in one of the more spectacular on-screen fight scenes in cinema history), but her revenge-motivated backstory makes her seem determined, if not necessarily layered. Kill Bill takes places in a heightened and stylized universe, so that the characters feel like caricatures is appropriate. And since Tarantino is such a masterful filmmaker, the heightened action movie universe makes the characters seem more interesteing instead of less.
Know that Kill Bill runs neck-and-neck with Russ Meyer’s Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! which is perhaps the best exploitation movie of all time.