Total Recall: The 25 Best Action Heroines of All Time

Who’s the toughest of them all? We count down to the best rock ‘em, sock ‘em lady of all time.

by | June 25, 2008 | Comments

In this week’s Wanted, Angelina Jolie returns to heat-packing form as an assassin named Fox, but how does she
measure up against the likes of fellow fatal femmes like Sigourney Weaver (Aliens),
Uma Thurman (Kill Bill), Michelle Yeoh (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon),
and Pam Grier (Foxy Brown)? We count down through 25 of the baddest
chicks in movie history and name the number one best action heroine of all time.

Our criteria: each lethal lady should make you think twice before challenging
her to a fight. (Which is why two of three Charlie’s Angels didn’t make
the cut. Sorry, Drew and Cameron.) Kicking many butts in multiple action films
improves a nominee’s stock, but so too can a single, iconic performance. We
think you’ll agree that our #1 Best Action Heroine of All Time (by unanimous
decision) can best the rest of the list in our fantasy showdown, but start here
and see for yourself! Our list begins with…

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25. Famke Janssen

Before starring as telepathic super heroine Jean Grey in the X-Men
franchise (and shredding the world to bits as the destructive Phoenix in
X-Men: The Last Stand
), Famke Janssen scored the coup of every aspiring
femme fatale in Hollywood when she landed the role of Xenia Onatopp in 1995’s
. Not your regular Bond girl, Onatopp earned a special place in
the already-cheeky history of James Bond for her unique signature move: death by
thighs. The pleasure, Ms. Janssen, is all ours.

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24. Demi Moore

While she provided a fabulous foil to the 21st century
Charlie’s Angels in McG‘s second flick, we know there’s tougher stuff within
Demi Moore than a deranged gymnastic villainess with a fetish for gold plated
guns. Hark back to 1997’s G.I. Jane, when Moore embodied toughness by
shaving her head, becoming a NAVY Seal, and withstanding a brutal beat down by
Viggo Mortensen while landing a few of her own blows to boot. Femine brawn never
looked hotter.

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23. Linda Hamilton

If a killer robot from the future appeared on your doorstep with assassination on his mind, and you only narrowly manage to escape his rather large Austrian clutches, how would you react? “Work out like there’s no tomorrow and become a bona fide badass” was evidently Linda Hamilton’s answer. When Ahnuld returns in Terminator 2 as a good guy and helps break Hamilton’s Sarah Connor out of the mental hospital she’s been forced to enter, she leads the charge in saving the world yet again. From the pure adrenaline of the hospital escape to the SWAT shootout to end all SWAT shootouts, Hamilton throws herself into the role with such passion that you can’t help but feel every punch, stab, and gunshot.

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22. Natasha Henstridge

Ever wonder how a nude blonde could kill a man with a French kiss? We found out when Natasha Henstridge made her movie debut in Species as Sil, a half human, half alien hybrid with a very violent impulse to mate. Sure, she’s not exactly a heroine — killing innocent men has a habit of giving you a bum rap — but Sil was just doing what came naturally. After her stunning (and oft-nude) debut, former model Henstridge would appear in a sequel, Species II; later she replaced Courtney Love in John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars. And while none of her subsequent films would reach Species-level success, we always took some guilty pleasure in her role as a karate-chopping ex-con in the syndicated show She Spies.

(Video NSFW)

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21. Lucy Liu

Lucy Liu’s first foray into the action genre was actually a small role in the Mel Gibson-powered Payback, but at the time, she was still mostly known for her role on TV’s Ally McBeal. But then came the new millennium, and with it a new Lucy Liu, one that mixed it up with baddies as one of Charlie’s Angels, which had Liu and co-stars Cameron Diaz and Drew Barrymore leaping, kicking, and blasting their way to box office stardom. She suffered a minor setback when actioner Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever proved to be as terrible as its name, but when Quentin Tarantino came a-knockin’ to cast Lucy as O-Ren Ishii in Kill Bill: Vol. I, she found redemption. O-Ren’s Lady Snowblood-like ruthlessness reminded us that Lucy Liu could be as dangerous as she was exotic.

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20. Jennifer Garner

Prior to landing her career-defining role as secret agent Sydney Bristow on J.J. Abrams’ television show Alias, Jennifer Garner was stuck playing romantic interests in films like Dude, Where’s My Car? and Pearl Harbor. However, once Alias hit the airwaves, the world found out just how lethal (and how buff) Garner could be. Hollywood soon took note, and Garner landed the role of the Greek-born, sai-wielding ninja assassin Elektra opposite future hubby Ben Affleck in Daredevil. Elektra rose from the grave for a subsequent spin-off movie, though critics beat it to death (zing!); Garner would pack heat once more as a terrorist-hunting FBI agent in 2007’s The Kingdom.

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19. Anne Parillaud

Though French actress Anne Parillaud has a couple of roles that might qualify her for this list (a vampire in Innocent Blood, an assassin in Shattered Image), it’s Luc Besson‘s La Femme Nikita that really screams “You do NOT want to cross me, mon ami!” Parillaud’s Nikita is a nihilistic thrill seeker until a covert government program remodels her into a hot (but lethal) hit-woman. She endures a harsh training program, then proceeds to drop her victims one by one without batting an eyelash or severely disrupting her private life… for a while. Nikita was such a sensation that it even spawned an American remake (Point of No Return, starring Bridget Fonda) and a television series.

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18. Angela Mao

Kung fu films were never better than during the 1970s, and kung fu
stars were never cuter than Angela Mao. Dubbed “Lady Kung Fu,” the diminutive
actress appeared with the likes of Sammo Hung and Bruce Lee (appearing as Lee’s
sister Su Lin in Enter the Dragon) and, contrary to her delicate build,
put her training in hapkido, taekwondo, and kung fu to great use; Mao would
often go head-to-head with the best of the Chinese Opera stars, a whirlwind of
lethal kicks and blows that made her a match for any man. As an undercover cop
in Stoner, Mao plays opposite one-time Bond George Lazenby in a role
originally meant for Bruce Lee himself, battling one baddie in the film’s final
fight while Lazenby delivers his own style of lumbering blows in the next room.

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17. Hilary Swank

She may not be an action star, but Hilary Swank has no shortage of solid combos in her filmography. She battled the Cobra Kai-esque Alpha Elite in The Next Karate Kid and punched her way to the top in Million Dollar Baby. In The Reaping, she even stared down the Prince of Darkness himself. And let’s not forget her work in Freedom Writers — after all, the pen is mightier than the sword.

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16. Brigitte Nielsen

She’s a reality show punch line these days, but in the 1980s
Brigitte Nielsen was riding high — not least because of her sword-wielding turn
in the title role 1985’s Red Sonja. Nielson held her own onscreen with no
less a presence than Arnold Schwarzenegger. The following year, she outran a
gang of neo-fascists with the help of soon-to-be-hubby Sylvester Stallone in Cobra.
Since then, she’s dished out the pain in an endless number of schlocky
straight-to-DVD titles — and cold lamped with Flavor.

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15. Carrie-Anne Moss

The first Matrix was mind-blowing, but the first scene of the first Matrix redefined how we watch action movies. Thanks in large part to Carrie-Anne Moss’ steely precision, that first chase scene — more specifically, that bullet-time crane kick — became lasered into our collective movie memories. Plus, if the very idea of a hot female computer programmer wasn’t enough to earn the adulation of geeks worldwide, Moss’ leather-clad Trinity had the power of the Matrix — and the love of Neo — at her fingertips.

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14. Kara Hui

Although other female martial arts stars may enjoy more name
recognition (like Pei-Pei Cheng, star of 1966’s Come Drink With Me and
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
), Kara Hui exhibited a special sparkle,
appearing in many celebrated late-Shaw era films. In 8 Diagram Pole Fighter,
Hui helps avenge her family’s massacre as Gordon Liu‘s sister with some fancy
spear work; in New Tales of the Flying Fox, she steals the show in a
pot-kicking battle of wuxia wizardry. But our favorite Kara Hui performance
comes in My Young Auntie, as her straitlaced young widow faces off in a
battle of wills — delicately, forcefully — wearing a gaudy, Western-style

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13. Tura Satana

When it comes to tough chicks, none come tougher than Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! star Tura Satana. After a childhood straight out of a 1950s cautionary film, Satana channeled a reform school past, martial arts training, and burlesque experience into a Hollywood career, nabbing her break out role in Russ Meyer‘s cult classic about a trio of ruthless go-go dancers. Karate chops! Switchblades! Cat fights! Faster Pussycat has it all, thanks to Satana’s bosomy, bloodthirsty Varla — one of the best villainesses to ever bully and joyride in camp cinema.

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12. Zhang Ziyi

Early in her acting career, Zhang Ziyi caught a break when Ang Lee cast
her as the rebellious Jen Yu in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. After
matching swords in that role with Chow Yun-Fat and martial arts veteran Michelle Yeoh, Zhang continued right on mowing down foes in films like Rush Hour 2,
Hero, and House of Flying Daggers. She may look sweet and
innocent, but as Admiral Ackbar of Star Wars would say, “It’s a trap!”
Get close enough to pinch this diminutive star’s cheeks, and you just might end
up with some cold steel lodged in your gullet.

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11. Cynthia Rothrock

If we could rename this iconic 80’s action legend, she’d be Cynthia
WrathRocks! GRRR! Alright, lame wordplay aside, this martial arts champion was
a pioneer, breaking into an industry that was dominated in the States by the
likes of Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris. After signing a deal with Golden Harvest
(employer of Lee himself), Rothrock found success in the Hong Kong film industry
and eventually transitioned to the US market with Martial Law. She never
quite found her footing in mainstream Hollywood, but movies like Honor & Glory and China O’Brien (probably her most famous role) helped open
the doors for aspiring female martial artists in American film. Rothrock on!
Sorry, couldn’t help it.

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10. Kate Beckinsale

When Hollywood demands actresses maintain wireframe physiques, how is
anyone going to get any action movies starring girls started? I guess just make
sure your lead actress is smoking hot. Enter Kate Beckinsale. Though she doesn’t
register the same sheer screen presence as others on this list, her flagship
action movies (Underworld and Underworld: Evolution) features her in some
flattering leather outfit, engaging in some well-choreographed gunplay, and
unraveling a unique vampires versus werewolves plot. Along with Van Helsing
where she fights an assortment of Transylvanian ghoulies, sticking in the
monster trade is serving Beckinsale well.

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09. Michelle Rodriguez

Certain actresses need stunt doubles to be believable action heroines; somehow, we know Michelle Rodriguez can throw a real punch, surf a wave (Blue Crush), race cars (Fast and the Furious), and shoot zombies (Resident Evil). The 5’4″ actress set a tone for herself when she debuted in the independent hit Girlfight as a tough-as-nails Brooklyn teen who trains as a boxer; her subsequent tough girl roles would follow suit, notching a string of beautifully hard-bitten characters under her belt.

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08. Zoe Bell

Zoe Bell makes our list because, heck — how many other professional stuntwomen can you even name? From doubling as Lucy Lawless on Xena: Warrior Princess to filling in for Uma Thurman in Kill Bill Vol. 1 and 2, Bell has helped some of the best action actresses perform great fight scenes time and time again, as chronicled in the stuntwoman documentary Double Dare. When Quentin Tarantino wrote her into Death Proof, she even got the chance to play herself — and a little game of Ship’s Mast on the hood of a Dodge Challenger.

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07. Sigourney Weaver

Looking back at the Alien quadrilogy, it’s tough to say if Sigourney Weaver made Ellen Ripley or if Ripley made Weaver, but the role has achieved such a lofty status that we just couldn’t imagine anyone else splattering facehuggers and chestbursters across the insides of a spacecraft. Weaver isn’t a particularly striking specimen of physical prowess, and considering she spends most of her time in a flightsuit or covered in slime, her sexual allure is not what’s on display here either, but that’s precisely what makes her so incredible. Cyborgs, marines, and a colony of space criminals all failed to eliminate the alien threat, so who we gonna call? Ellen freaking Ripley.

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06. Grace Jones

She may not have as extensive a filmography as some of her colleagues on
this list, but in the mid-80’s, Grace Jones personified that powerful, raw
intensity we suspect lurks within the fairer sex. Though she had already
established her androgenous persona via a singing career, heads really turned
when this muscular, flat-topped model fought side by side with Arnold
Schwarzenegger and Wilt Chamberlain in Conan the Destroyer. In fact, she
was so convincing as she helped “The Governator” dispatch an evil sorcerer that
studio execs decided to cast her in A View to a Kill as a Bond villain…
with superhuman strength. ‘Nuff said.

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05. Milla Jovovich

Quick – name
the last movie you saw starring Milla Jovovich as a “normal” character. If you
said Dazed and Confused, nice job on keeping tabs on slacker cinema, but, man,
that movie was made 15 years ago. Since then, Jovovich has shown incredible
commitment to establishing herself as the go-to action gal. She carried the
Resident Evil franchise across three installments, survived Kurt Wimmer‘s
Ultraviolet misfire, delved into the revenge thriller genre with the underseen
.45, found God and saved France in The Messenger, and, perhaps greatest of all,
helped make The Fifth Element the cult classic it is today as the lost and
exotic Leeloo. All this without sacrificing any grace or poise Jovovich learned
on the model runway.

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04. Uma Thurman

Okay, yeah, she was Poison Ivy in ’97, an Avenger in ’98, and a
Super Ex-Girlfriend
in 2006, but let’s be honest here. If we’re talking
about Uma Thurman being “all out of bubble gum,” we need look no further than
Kill Bill: Vols. I
and II. Sporting a bright yellow tracksuit and a
wicked katana, Uma wreaked havoc all over Quentin Tarantino’s collective “fourth
film,” dispatching her nemeses with such vigor, effectiveness, and bloody style
that this role alone earns her shoo-in status in any discussion of women
warriors. “Silly Caucasian girl likes to play with samurai swords…” Oh yes she
does, and thank God for that.

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03. Angelina Jolie

Now here’s a woman who was born to be a femme fatale. She’s played cop (The Bone Collector) and criminal (Gone in 60 Seconds), sociopath (Girl, Interrupted) and scammer (Original Sin), but the world didn’t really know what it was in for until Jolie took on the iconic role of video game adventurer Lara Croft. Clad in those signature short shorts, a pair of pistols on her hips, Jolie shot and tumbled her way through two Tomb Raider films; a few years later, she would maximize that firearms-plus-sex appeal formula opposite Brad Pitt in Mr. and Mrs. Smith. In this week’s Wanted, she’s bending bullets as a sultry killer named, appropriately, The Fox.

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02. Pam Grier

Before the 1970s, prominent roles for African-American women
were distressingly rare — and, when they were available, were often passive or
demeaning. Pam Grier was having none of that. With the one-two combo of Coffy
(1973) and Foxy Brown (1974), Grier established one of American cinema’s
baddest on-screen personas. If her peak years were brief, her impact is
undeniable; she re-emerged in 1998 in Jackie Brown, as an older and wiser
— but still tough-as-nails — variation on her early Blaxploitation triumphs.

Click for our #1 Action Heroine of All Time!

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01. Michelle Yeoh

What can you say about a woman who’s starred in over 20 action films,
performed most of her own stunts, kept pace with James Bond, and held her own
alongside legends like Jet Li and Jackie Chan? Frankly, we think her resume
speaks for itself. If you’ve seen Michelle Yeoh in the highly celebrated
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
(with Zhang Ziyi) or in any one of her
classics like Yes, Madam (also Cynthia Rothrock‘s martial arts debut), you know you
never want to be on her bad side, because she will break you off a burning piece
of whoopass.