Here’s a dumb question: Can women do action? The answer: Yes! As with its sister question — “Can women be funny?” — it’s not only insulting; it also betrays a complete ignorance of history. Granted, cinema has a whole heck of a lot more women being funny than kicking ass. But with the arrival of “Wonder Woman” this week — the first superhero movie not starring a dude since 2005’s “Electra,” and starring Gal Gadot, a woman who’s already done action in the “Fast/Furious” movies — we feel compelled to remind the Internet that there are too many female action gods to ignore. Here are some of our favorite female ass-kickers throughout cinema history:
The past was a terrible time for women and things have gotten better. We like to tell ourselves this story. But this isn’t entirely true. History has a way of forgetting, or intentionally obscuring, the achievements of those strong women who were able to muscle their way into the movies during the early days. In addition to semi-obscure woman filmmakers like Lois Weber (in the silent era) and Dorothy Arzner (in the ’30s), there was Helen Holmes, aka cinema’s first female action star. She headlined the exceedingly popular 1910s thriller serial “The Hazards of Helen,” which sometimes involved her character being rescued. But more often than not she was a woman of action, jumping between trains and doing proto-parkour stunts and taking down the bad guys herself. She was a pioneer. And of course, she’s now mostly forgotten.
For much of the 20th century, Hollywood kept women in their place. Asian cinema was different. Kung-fu and wuxia movies still predominantly starred men, but women started sneaking starting in the mid-’60s. Cheng Pei-Pei know how to wield a sword with the best of them, in the likes of 1965’s “Come Drink with Me.” Angela Mao only had a small role, as Bruce Lee’s sister, in “Enter the Dragon,” but she was prolific and fierce enough that she earned the nicknames “Lady Whirlwind” and “Lady Kung Fu.” Then there was Meiko Kaji, star of the classic “Lady Snowblood,” whose elegant moves and striking appearance were two of many things Quentin Tarantino nicked for “Kill Bill.”
By the 1970s, the idea of women doing action was no longer verboten in Hollywood. It just required something akin to sneaking your dog’s medicine inside a treat. In other words, it meant the women had to be hot. Pam Grier would play the sex bomb, but she was the sex bomb that will claw your horndog face off. In “Coffy,” Grier seeks the men who murdered her brother. So she poses as a floozy. She seduces her prey, then when they’re blind with lust, she kills them real good. Grier was the avenging angel by way of siren, and you cheered as she checked off her lengthy kill list.
In the original “Alien,” Weaver’s Ellen Ripley is mostly just trying to stay alive. By 1986’s sequel, “Aliens,” she was an action icon. But Ripley didn’t just kill Xenomorphs real good. She was also an excellent strategist; the only person who keeps a cool head; a frustrated loner undermined by male superiors; and a mother grieving her dead daughter, who finds her maternal instincts reawakened by the orphaned girl Newt. Ripley remains the ideal female action hero — not simply a woman doing manly things, but a fully fleshed out and complicated character who could, you know, still hurt you.
Like “Aliens,” the second “Terminator” was not only bigger — it gave its female star more to do. In the first film, Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor was just your average everywoman, rather surprised to discover an android from the future was trying to kill her. By the second episode, she’d become almost as deadly as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s T-100 itself. And like Ripley, she didn’t merely bring the pain. She was intense, traumatized, unpredictable, sometimes even crazy or borderline unlikable. And Hamilton went all-in with a performance we still can’t believe was ignored by the Oscars.
Rothrock didn’t do Hollywood. Yes, she had a black belt and won untold championships. But she didn’t become an action god until she emigrated to Hong Kong. When she returned to America in the ’90s, she stuck to sleazy B-movies, like “Martial Law,” “No Retreat, No Surrender 2” and “Fast Getaway,” stuck in the same not-quite-mainstream oblivion as Richard Norton, Chad McQueen and ’90s Corey Haim. Still, don’t put Rothrock in a corner. She could mess with the best of them, and she never had to endure big studio execs telling her to be more sexy.
Actresses like Meiko Kaji (see above) paved the way for all the powerful martial arts women of the ’80s and ’90s. Yeoh was arguably the era’s best, though this slot could easily be filled by Maggie Cheung or Anita Mui. As it happens, all three of them teamed up in the delirious, nutso “The Heroic Trio,” where women who had each held their own with Jackie Chan got to do a rip-roaring classic without the help of any men. Also like Cheung and the late Mui, Yeoh is a great dramatic actress, too — and in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” she got to use both sides at once.
“The Matrix” was a true instant classic — and by “instant,” we mean it was a classic starting with the very first scene. It wasn’t a man who took out hordes of anonymous cops while showing off the next-level special effects. It was Carrie-Anne Moss’ Trinity — the coolest and most accomplished of the dystopian rebels. Laurence Fishburne’s Morpheus may have taught Keanu Reeves’s Neo about the Matrix, but it was Trinity who taught him how to do it with swagger. And of course, by the third movie she’d been reduced to just another damsel in distress who dies beatifically in her lover’s arms.
It really started with “The Fifth Element.” Twenty summers ago, Jovovich took an unplayable character — she’s not a person but a humanoid embodiment of one of the universe’s basic elements — and turned her into an acrobatic dispatcher of baddies. It was a no-brainer to cast her in the “Resident Evil” movies, which could have been your usual video game movie dreck. Instead it’s a showcase for one of history’s greatest no-nonsense action stars.
Few roles are as tough as “Kill Bill”’s The Bride. There’s so much to do. She has to swordfight dozens, maybe hundreds of baddies. She has to endure the rigorous training of a kung fu master. She has to play a woman undone by the (she thinks) death of her unborn child. And Thurman pulled it all off without a hitch. We’re still mystified she didn’t receive a special Oscar for her troubles.
Don’t let the utter failure of “Ghost in the Shell” dissuade you: ScarJo is the real deal. She regularly steals the Marvel movies, and as a character (Black Widow) with no superpowers. And though “Ghost in the Shell” is a wash, it does one smart thing: It combines two things Johansson does best. She’s both an ass-kicker and a non-human character — the type of role she’s excelled at in “Her,” “Lucy” and “Under the Skin.” She’s so good you can almost — but not really at all — ignore the whole “white-washing” business.
Ronda Rousey is awesome. But she’s no Gina Carano. Both are female MMA alums who could topple the mightiest man. Both have done “Fast and/or Furious” movies. (Carano is in “6,” Rousey in “7.”) But Rousey’s only other major screen credit is the laughable “Expendables 3.” Meanwhile, Carano starred in a frickin’ Steven Soderbergh movie. She owns his weirdo-action movie “Haywire,” commanding the screen with the same power as a George Clooney or Julia Roberts. That said, if Rousey ever gets her remake of “Road House” off the ground, where she fills in for Patrick Swayze, this particular Carano-Rousey match may have a different outcome.
We wouldn’t mess with anyone on this list, but we really, really don’t want to mess with Michelle Rodriguez. From “Girlfight” on, she’s been one of the most awesomely intimidating actors in the movies. Even if she doesn’t throw a punch, she’ll scare you by snarling her lip. It was such a bummer when she vacated the “Fast/Furious” saga — and as the series gets increasingly ridiculous, yet, somehow also dull, she’s the only thing keeping it grounded.
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge