The recent release of Steven Soderbergh’s Haywire, starring MMA fighter Gina Carano, was as notable for its A-List cast and crew as it was for the casting of an actress not named Jolie in the lead role. As such, it got us to thinking: How many true female Action Heroes are there?
The Action Hero is an iconic fixture of American cinema, so much so that even a partial roll call of actors who have made their bones in such roles could outlast a montage of every movie scene featuring Stevan Seagal looking smug. But while you can’t throw a curiously ineffective frag grenade or unleash a burst of machine gun fire without nearly hitting an actor who has done a stint or two (or 20) in the Action Hero role, the list of true female Action Heroes is much shorter. As we’ll see in the list that follows, this is particularly true of the Pre-Jolie Era (those years before 2001’s Tomb Raider).
But first, some parameters:
Being an Action Hero is not a team effort. Fellow cast members are there only to be saved, to provide comic relief or to have their unblinking eyes closed by the hero’s hand as bloody vengeance is vowed. Like her male counterparts, a true female Action Hero is the undeniable focal point of the narrative. (“Sorry, Angels.”) She has punched and kicked, and just as importantly, she has been punched and kicked. She’s faced daunting odds and come out on top not due to feminine wiles or male protectors but because she, my friend, can kick your ass.
A true Action Hero is forged on the Big Screen. Or more precisely, the distinction is as much about achieving, however briefly, a measure of industry standing and casting potential as it is about kicking butt. With apologies to Lindsey Wagner, Lucy Lawless, Sarah Michelle Gellar and the like, kicking television butt just isn’t the same as kicking wide-release/blockbuster butt. (Even blockbuster flop butt is better.) For that same reason, Linda Blair, Brigitte Nielson and other Dudikoff-equivalent action heroines are also absent.
The female Action Hero is, usually, human. This is important to the extent that trying not to die, along with trying to prevent the death of others, often makes up much of the “action” undertaken by your typical action hero. (Yes, the “usually” means there will be a few exceptions on this list.)
Finally, for this list, the phrase “Action Hero” has a silent “Hollywood” before it. While several countries have a well-established action hero cinematic tradition, there’s something uniquely red, white and blue about Hollywood’s version. Thus, while Jet Li would make a list of male Action Heroes, he would do so for his roles in films like Fearless and Unleashed and not for Once Upon a Time in China or Fist of Legend. Sorry, Michelle Yeoh.
With these parameters in mind, let’s look at those actresses who, for a moment or for a lifetime*, have risen to the heights of Female Action Hero! (And after that, we’ll consider those worth an honorable mention and those who could be next in line.)
*Sadly, the lifetime of most Hollywood actresses consists of those years before 37.
Unfortunately, “Long Kiss Goodnight” also referred to her film career after Cutthroat Island.
Voted most likely to trigger a “wha-huh?” on this list, Davis nonetheless earned her place with two films—Cutthroat Island (1995) and The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996). During the films, Davis is the epitome of the Action Hero. She bullies, outwits and outfights a steady stream of foes and in general flaunts Action Hero cajones of steel. At one point in Cutthroat Island, Davis’ character scalps her own dead father. (It was his fault for tattooing a map there and then dying.) In The Long Kiss Goodnight, being tied to a water wheel and tortured stops her from taunting and killing her torturer about as effectively as being suspended from chains and electrocuted by a car battery stopped Mel Gibson in the first Lethal Weapon movie. (Spoiler: It totally doesn’t.) Unfortunately, the long annihilating shadow cast by Cutthroat Island—$90 million to make, $10 million domestic gross—pretty much guaranteed Davis would have time to star in three Stuart Little films and try out for the 2000 Olympics in archery. (Honestly, I’m willing to give her extra points for having her first child at 46 and then twins at 48. That’s the physical equivalent of being electrocuted by battery while tied to a water wheel.)