10 Great Female-Led Action Films You Probably Haven’t Seen

While the female-led action films have been released since the dawn of cinema, they remain less than a common occurrence in theaters. Until now, studios just haven’t had the same confidence that audiences will turn out for female action heroes much in the same way that they do for male ones. Part of this reason is the stereotypes associated with the genre, and the connections we have with certain actors filling familiar roles. However, just because there aren’t a lot of female-led action films doesn’t mean they haven’t been any good. This is an example of 10 female-led action films which might not be that familiar to you, but definitely deserve to be.

 Yes, Madam! (1985) [aka Ultra Force 2, or The Super Cops]

Director: Corey Yuen

Starring: Michelle Yeoh, Cythia Rothrock

The Plot: A relentless inspector (Michelle Yeoh) and a Scotland Yard detective (Cynthia Rothrock) investigate murder linked to microfilm.

One of the most criminally underappreciated (no pun intended) subgenres in action movies is the Hong Kong action flick, of which Yes, Madame! Is a classic. This one is a hell of a duel debut by Michelle Yeoh and the actress that would become a Hong Kong action movie staple; Cynthia Rothrock. It’s a hard-edged and rambunctious action extravaganza, but also some slapstick, cheesy humor, and gorey violence to make for a very entertaining viewing experience. It’s also directed by Corey Yueh who pretty much grew up training for and then starring in Hong Kong action films. Suffice to say, he knows his stuff, and it shows on screen.   

The Quick and the Dead (1995)

Director: Sam Raimi

Starring: Sharon Stone, Russell Crowe, Gene Hackman

The Plot: A mysterious woman gunslinger, Ellen (Sharon Stone), saunters into the town of Redemption looking for revenge. Her father was killed by the town’s sadistic mayor, Herod (Gene Hackman), who is in the midst of organizing a quick-draw tournament. The lady enters, joining a cast of miscreants and outlaws for a brutal competition in which the loser dies. Among the competitors is “The Kid” (Leonardo DiCaprio), an upstart who has his own score to settle with Herod.

The man behind the original Evil Dead movies and the first Spider Man trilogy tried his hand at a western in the vein of Sergio Leone, and cast a woman in the lead role. Sharon Stone didn’t really receive any accolades for her performance, but female-led westerns are few and far between, so this one deserves some credit for what it is trying to acomplish even if it is a bit cliche. The rest of the cast does well though, including Leonardo DiCaprio in an early role and Gene Hackman as the main antagonist. Raimi’s inventive and energetic direction is always a major draw in this films, and this one is no exception.

The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec (2010)

Director: Luc Besson

Starring: Louise Bourgoin, Mathieu Amalric, Philippe Nahon

The Plot: A popular novelist deals with her would-be suitors, the cops, monsters, and other distractions.

Luc Besson has made a career out of women-fronted films, and he has also made more than a few action movies as well. This one is in his native French, and is less straight action, more adventure – but it nonetheless a fun romp. Based on a comic book of the same name, the titular character finds herself in the middle of several fantastical occurrences set in the early 20th century. Stylistic and energetic, but not quite overblown, this one reads as an alternative to Sommer’s Mummy films.     

Haywire (2011)

Director: Steven Soderbergh

Starring: Gina Carano, Ewan McGregor, Michael Fassbender

The Plot: Mallory Kane (Gina Carano) is a highly trained operative for a government security contractor. Her missions take her to the world’s most dangerous areas. After Mallory successfully frees a hostage journalist, she’s betrayed and left for dead by someone in her own agency. Knowing her survival depends on learning the truth behind the double-cross, Mallory uses her black-ops training to set a trap. But when things go awry, Mallory knows she’ll die unless she can turn the tables on her adversary.

Of all the films on this list, this one is probably the one that you’ve most likely seen. However, the film only made about $19 million at the US box office, and so many of you did not see it in theaters. If you missed out, or otherwise were unaware of this film’s existence, now is your opportunity to catch up on a hard-hitting stunt-filled action movie which is expertly directed by the man who brought you Ocean’s Eleven. Add in a great cast, slick choreography, and an interesting story within a story plot which allows this one to entertain on multiple levels.  

Chocolate (2008)

Director: Prachya Pinkaew

Starring: Yanin “Jeeja” Vismistananda, Hiroshe Abe

The Plot: A gangster’s autistic daughter uses her amazing martial arts skills to collect on debts owed to her mother.

This movie has nothing to do with Johnny Depp. It doesn’t even have much to do with chocolate. But that doesn’t matter too much once you see the finished product. What does matter is that it is a crazy melodramatic Thai action film full of well-choreographed martial arts sequences. It is a film in which the trailer brags about “no wires” and “no stunt doubles”. If you need any other reason to go watch this movie, this list isn’t for you.

Blue Steel (1989)

Director: Kathryn Bigelow

Starring: Jamie Lee Curtis, Ron Silver, Clancy Brown

The Plot: When rookie cop Megan Turner kills a convenience store robber, she does not notice when psychopathic commodities trader Eugene Hunt takes the dead man’s gun. With no weapon at the crime scene, the police hold Turner accountable for killing an unarmed man. Meanwhile, Hunt uses the stolen weapon to go on a killing spree. Turner teams up with detective Nick Mann to clear her name and catch the killer. An unexpected romance complicates matters.

Bigelow’s films have given us both incredibly strong female characters (Zero Dark Thirty, Near Dark, Strange Days) and incredibly memorable action movies/thrillers (Point Blank, The Hurt Locker). Blue Steel is a combination of those elements, with the always intriguing Jamie Lee Curtis at the helm. Bigelow manages to take dark late-80’s action movie ideas and infuse them with a sort of fetishism and psychological struggle to keep you on the edge of your seat.

So Close (2002)

Director: Corey Yuen

Starring: Shu Qi, Vicki Zhao, Karen Mok

The Plot: Lynn (Shu Qi) is a professional assassin, hacker and espionage specialist. While her shyer sister, Sue, handles the computer aspects of missions at home, Lynn takes on all the dangerous tasks. Sue resents Lynn for underestimating her, though Lynn is just trying to protect her younger sister. Police detective Hong (Karen Mok) pursues the two after they successfully kill the chairman of a major company, but all three must work together when a common enemy wants them dead.

Another Hong Kong action flick, but inspired by The Matrix (which is odd as The Matrix was inspired by the Hong Kong style action movies). It’s like Charlie’s Angels, but its attempt at seriousness hits closer to the mark. This one is also directed by Corey Yuen, who does what he does best; expertly choreographed fight sequences. Each of the three leading ladies gets their chance to show off, and despite some lackluster special effects (by today’s standards) the film’s technology-obsessed style works well.  

Lady Snowblood (1973)

Director: Toshiya Fujita

Starring: Meiko Kaji, Toshio Kurosawa, Ko Nishimira

The Plot: A woman seeks the revenge that was her birthright in this action thriller from Japan. A gang of ruthless thieves break into the home of a rural couple, and after taking their valuables, they murder the husband and rape the wife once they’ve beaten her senseless. When the ravaged wife tracks down one of the thieves and attacks him, she is arrested by police; she was left pregnant by the rape, and gives birth to a daughter months later, dying shortly after delivery. The daughter, Yuki, is raised by a priest who teaches her how to use a sword and trains her to show no mercy to the men who brutalized her family. When she turns 20, Yuki sets out to seek revenge, looking beautiful and tranquil on the outside but possessing a powerful taste for vengeance against those who wronged her and her mother.

This movie is most famous for being a major inspiration on what would become Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill films. Indeed, watching it today might feel like watching a less advanced, less indulgent version. However, this film can more than hold its own against our modern expectations. Ruthlessly violent, exceedingly cool, and with a sense of humor all too often lacking in today’s action genre, Lady Snowblood and its sequel deserve recognition for being one of the best revenge stories to ever hit the big screen.

La Femme Nikita (1990)

Director: Luc Besson

Starring: Anne Parillaud, Jean Reno, Tcheky Karyo

The Plot: Convicted felon Nikita (Anne Parillaud), instead of going to jail, is given a new identity and trained to be a secret police assassin controlled by the government. Her lonely life is warmed when she falls in love with a man who knows nothing of her mysterious life.

The second Luc Besson film on this list is one that many people consider among his best work. He takes the hairbrain action and antics that he is known for, but balances them with a softer, more emotional story. The combination of insane and engaging makes for a complete film experience. It’s not quite as polished as his later work, but it gives it a sort of haphazard, art house charm.

The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996)

Director: Renny Harlin

Starring: Geena Davis, Samuel L. Jackson

The Plot: Schoolteacher and single mother Samantha Caine (Geena Davis) lives an average suburban life — until she begins having strange memories of unexplained violence and discovers that she has physical skills that she never imagined. Hiring private detective Mitch Hennessey (Samuel L. Jackson) to probe into her past, Samantha discovers that she’s a well-trained government assassin who went missing after suffering a bout of amnesia and that her former handlers want her back in their employ.

This film did well at the box office and is fondly remembered by many, but it still doesn’t seem to get the recognition these days that it deserves. It has many things going for it. It starts with Geena Davis, who is sort of like Jason Bourne – the audience gets to learn her abilities along with her. She has excellent chemistry with her co-star, Mr. Samuel L. Jackson. It’s full of big action moments, and has a great story written by The Nice Guys director Shane Black. Today this film enjoys a cult following, and for good reason.

What other lesser known female-led action movies do you think are worth a referral?