Last week over at Grantland, Bill Simmons wrote a fantastic article about action heroes. You can find it HERE, where he has a traveling championship belt going from star to star rewarding them for their achievements and successes. With only 1 female taking the belt in the whole article (I won't spoil who in case you haven't read it), it got me to thinking, who are the best female action stars of all time? I don't argue that pure action has been a male heavy genre, as it seems to be more challenging for a woman to get the better material and to grab the box office audience (it shouldn't be this way, but its where we're at). So I decided in response to make a list of who I think have been the 11 best. And sadly, there wasn't a whole lot to choose from or an easily definitive 10. I'll list them in alphabetical except the Greatest Of All Time, I'll save her for last.
This isn't women who just appeared in a lot of movies where she held the hand of a hero while they ran from an explosion. No, in order to qualify they had to do some action things themselves, primarily leading the way. Quality of film did help some of them, but quantity played a factor too. Not all the films listed are going to bring any sort of agreement as to whether they're good or not, but that's not the point of this article. So, save the "Such and Such Part 2 was shitty" comments as they aren't relevant. I also tried to keep away from comic book movies and super duper sci fi stuff (although i couldn't count the latter out completely). Performance, watchability of the actress, charisma, believability are all things that went into this too. I do think its great that I found in the last 10 years we've had plenty of female actions stars whereas there really weren't much (plenty of one-offs) from 1970-2000.
UPDATE: Its now 11 because I completely forgot to include one of the best. And maybe one of my personal favorites. I was too worried on finding others that I had a brainfart. Thanks to my sister for putting me in my place!
Underworld 1-2-4, Van Helsing, Whiteout, Total Recall (2012)
Okay, so I wan't big on any of these movies at all, but I can't deny that Underworld has a big fanbase, and Kate seriously lives up to the bill of an action star. Total Recall was indeed lame, but Kate singlehandedly made it watchable for me as she chewed up scenery and seemed to be having a blast. Let's just get her in some better action material in the future shall we?
Cutthroat Island, The Long Kiss Goodnight
It sucks that she only has a 1-2 punch, but due to both being big time box office disappointments her time was cut short. In my own personal opinion, the two Renny Harlin films are at the top of an incredibly underrated films of the 90s list. Geena was also spectacular in both. If you like the Bourne movies, there's no reason you won't enjoy The Long Kiss Goodnight. And I really think Cutthroat Island was badmouthed back in a time when box office numbers meant the same as quality to people. Go back to them now and you'll see they were just some awesome pure action movies, and Geena had the chops to be a great action star.
Terminator 1&2, Dante's Peak
She really doesn't have much to boast on the resume, and it really wasn't her forte, but damn did she leave an everlasting iconic impression on the action film world with Terminator 2. Its really one of the best ever in terms of action roles for women and even if that was her sole venture, she'd make the list purely because of it.
Gone In Sixty Seconds (2000), Lara Croft: Tomb Raider 1&2, Sky Captain & The World Of Tomorrow, Mr & Mrs Smith, Wanted, Salt, The Tourist
Look at the body of work...of work I said :) She's like the biggest working female action star we have today in terms of big movies, box office and star power. And if you've seen her in any of these, Angelina is always top notch no matter the quality of the overall movie.
The Fifth Element, The Messenger, Resident Evil 1-5, Ultraviolet
Milla is probably the tops female aciton hero without all the Angelina glory. She's probably the Queen of the B-level action femme fatales, and I love that. I also love the fact that she has never once dogged her franchise and is always up for more. She's a complete badass and who thought this would be the career path for her. The Resident Evil franchise is a serious guilty pleasure of mine and as long as they have Milla, I'll watch Resident Evil 17 if it comes to it. She's terrific and has been a killer action heroin almost since her first big time movie.
Payback, Shanghai Noon, Ballistic: Ecks Vs Sever, Charlie's Angels 1&2, Kill Bill Vol 1, Rise: Blood Hunter, The Man With The Iron Fists
Maybe not the pedigree of some of her companions, but she definitely isn't shy when it comes to action on her resume. Plus she kicks a lot of ass in her said action films. Lucy Liu might be the most not thought of and underrated of the bunch here because she doesn't immediately come to mind. But when you look at what she's done, you'll see she damn right belongs. Scott Mendelson might argue that we could count her work in the Kung Fu Panda series, but I left that off because it was voice work.
Fast & Furious 1-4-6, Resident Evil 1&5, SWAT, Avatar, Machete 1&2, Battle: Los Angeles
I hope I'm in the company of Michelle Rodriguez fans here. I know there's a lot of detractors and I really don't get why. She's got charisma and she doesn't bullshit around. This girl feels like she WANTS to be an action star. She might be a bigger star, but she doesn't take typical girl roles and goes for much more physically and emotionally demanding challenging characters. She's super cute, has some good snark to her and I think we all believe she's super tough. She's everything guys claim to want in an action hero, yet there are haters. Why?
The Avengers (1998), Kill Bill 1&2
Yeah I have The Avengers on there, but who are we kidding. She's on here for one reason and one only, she played unquestionably one of the most iconic female action role in history. It would have been cool to have some more Uma action movies, but she came in, dominated the scene and left. And everybody just sat there speechless. No matter your thoughts on the Kill Bills...its undeniable that Uma was amazing in these movies. End of story.
Alien 1-4, Copycat, Galaxy Quest, Avatar
Speaking of iconic, here's a lady to challenge Uma. Sigourney mainly gets this for her work in the Alien franchise and dominately her Oscar nominated performance in the second film. She really opened the gates and let it be known that amongst the muscle-dudes that women indeed could have their place. In real life, Sigourney isn't very big on guns and violence which is why we didn't see her do much more outside of the wheelhouse of her Ripley character in the Alien franchise.
Supercop 1&2, Tomorrow Never Dies, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, plus many other martial arts films I've not seen
She was a big deal for a little period in the 90s. Its a shame she didn't take off after Tomorrow Never Dies. Her character was so popular and liked that they wanted to spin her off into her own series and there was even a cameo written for her in Die Another Day that never came to fruition. Michelle kicks a lot of kung fu ass. Luckily she's pretty big overseas so its not like she faded away if you're paying attention. Globally she's definitely one of the greats and you really should invest your time in some of her output.
And now for the GOAT, unmatched, unscathed and simply the best...
Coffy, Black Mama White Mama, Foxy Brown, Sheba Baby, Bucktown, Friday Foster, Above the Law, Escape From LA, Jackie Brown
Nobody beats Pam. She is a bad ass. She was one of the premiere faces of the Blaxploitation movement and really the first female pure action star. She not only opened up the gates for a woman, but a woman of color as well to be just as kick ass as the boys. She's one of the greatest screen presences of all time as well. Especially during the 70s. She was the ultimate symbol of cool and confident. Its a damn shame after the grindhouse era started dwindling she disappeared for almost 2 decades until Quentin Tarantino finally gave a Pam a strong role she damn well deserved. I'd even go as far to say she and her body of work are better than most of the guys you'd put on a top 10 list.
Pam Grier and the women on this list aren't just some of the greatest female gender action stars of all time, they're of the greatest just plain action stars of all time, gender be damned!