We love a good woman-centered spy or assassin film here, the ones filled with running, shooting, great stunts, and even better fights.
Anyone who wants to get a fix of women fighting injustice, breaking jaws, and more. With that in mind, here are some female-led action movies that will satisfy audiences for the ages.
Anyone hoping for a spy thriller from Jessica Chastain in particular, should look know further.
Chastain plays the titular Ava, a former soldier and addict who went into the contract killing business to get her head on straight. Now, she’s gotten sober but questions her work. Family drama ensues when a job goes awry, and she must return to her hometown in Massachusetts. Her woes include a toxic mother (Geena Davis) and a former boyfriend (Common) who’s now married to her sister (Jess Weixler).
The ex’s gambling problems sort of derail things for a bit. However, when the story focuses on Ava, her handler Duke (John Malkovich), fellow spy/killer Simon (Colin Farrell), and his daughter Camille (Diana Silvers), the movie hums. A hotel fight involving Simon and Ava, in particular, has an appealing improvisational quality to match its blood-soaked brutality.
La Femme Nikita
The progenitor of this current era of female-led action movies, La Femme Nikita sets the tone. Over 30 years later, it remains one of the best. Directed by Luc Besson, it proved his first international hit.
Former teen addict and criminal Nikita (Anne Parillaud) went too far one night after a pharmacy robbery gone very wrong. Convicted of killing a police officer, her life appears effectively over. Then, unexpectedly, a shady government organization called The Centre approaches her and offers a simple choice. Join them and let them mold her into an assassin, or they’ll kill her. Nikita, understandably, chooses the former path.
Morally squirmy, heavily stylized, and surprisingly expressionist for an action film, it is no wonder so many have followed in La Femme’s footsteps since (including the long-running TV series). Besson would also repeat this formula, with some tweaks, multiple times throughout his directing/writing/producing career.
When Moody (Samuel L. Jackson) arrives to complete a job only to find his targets are already dead at a child’s hands, he decides to sneak her out of Vietnam and bring her home as his surrogate child and, well, protégé.
Years later, the child grows into an adult, Anna (Maggie Q), and Moody’s full partner in the business of international assassination. After someone kills Moody late the night of his birthday, Anna feels she has no choice but to hunt down his killer, even if it forces her to return to Vietnam.
The Protégé does its thing very well, with strong action sequences, a great lead-in Q, and some excellent supporting players. However, far and away, what recommends the weirdo sexual chemistry generated between Q and Michael Keaton (as a fixer for the number 1 suspect behind Moody’s murder) gives ample reason to view the film. Their energy ain’t exactly wholesome, but it was certainly one of the more intriguing romances in film of 2021.
Soderbergh does an international espionage thriller with bone-crushing results. While audiences seemed displeased by it, it connected with critics. With the gift of hindsight, it makes sense that viewers would hesitate to watch the film. It has decidedly unusual rhythms for the genre.
However, Soderbergh shoots his action with clean style, and the plot piles on stakes without losing the thread. In addition, it brings to bear a cavalcade of guest stars who fight and get beaten, including Channing Tatum on the first step of his critical reappraisal, a still-peaking Michael Fassbender, Ewan McGregor, Antonio Banderas, and more.
Gina Carano distracts in the lead, unfortunately. If one can’t get past her presence, given her political statements, that’s perfectly understandable. If a viewer can, however, she proves a presence on-screen. Acting-wise, she doesn't have much range. However, she has a rough charisma that works well for the picture. More importantly, her previous career as an MMA fighter lends brutal credibility to the action sequences.
While this writer bounced off Atomic Blonde, plenty connected with this story of spies partying and playing off each other as the fall of the Berlin Wall draws ever closer.
Blonde marked the official start of David Leitch’s directorial career, although he has been largely referred to as co-director of John Wick. Regardless, he brings that same kind of detail to the action sequences. The bruising fight choreography also looks beautiful.
Charlize Theron, as the titular blonde, gives a fine performance. As a possible ally, James McAvoy is appealing slimy, both in morality and physical appearance. The film also features a great 80s soundtrack.
Atomic Blonde doesn’t feel like any other spy thriller. Leitch doesn’t just give audiences “Wick but with a woman in the late ’80s.” Ensuring it has its own tone and viewpoint distinguishes the movie.
A man named Orlov (Daniel Olbrychski) turns himself into Evelyn Salt (Angelina Jolie) without a prelude one day. He admits his affiliation with Russian intelligence and, under interrogation, claims that Salt herself is a double agent. Another agent, Darryl Peabody (Chiwetel Ejiofor), orders Salt’s immediate detaining. Despite the odds, Salt escapes from custody.
On the run without allies and pursued by two countries, Salt tries to unravel the plot against her. Besides clearing her name, she has to find her missing husband and stop a plot that may well lead to a disastrous all-out international war.
Salt reminds viewers what Jolie can do with popcorn fare, nailing both the physicality of the role and its emotional pathos. Admittedly, the conspiracy gets rather convoluted by the end, but that means plenty of twists, turns, and betrayals to enjoy.
Anna is another “pretty woman rescued from her life to become a spy assassin” film from Luc Besson. This time out, the KGB plucks Anna (Sasha Luss) out of poverty and domestic abuse. They make a simple offer: let them make her a model, work for them for several years using modeling as a cover, and at the end of that time, she’s free and clear. Unfortunately, several members of the KGB have no intention of honoring that offer. Her only way out, they suggest, is death.
Mistakes and an increased need to cover her tracks end up ensnaring Anna in multiple relationships with a fellow model, a KGB agent, and a CIA agent who ruins one of her missions. The more she tries to satisfy all parties, the possibility one of them will kill her continues to climb.
Then again, maybe she knows exactly what she’s doing.
Luss doesn't have the acting talent Parillaud does, but Anna has better supporting players. It’s still inferior to Nikita, but as a trashier successor, it’s enjoyable.
Natasha (Scarlett Johansson) finally gets her due in this too-long-awaited solo effort. While the timing bothered some, given her already revealed fate in Avengers: Endgame, there was plenty to enjoy if viewers could put aside continuity.
For example, Johansson herself. It testifies to how she’s grown into the character that her work here feels so effortless. As a result, she gives the loosest performance of any of her MCU outings and arguably rivals her best work as Widow in Captain America: Winter Soldier.
Hawkeye viewers will undoubtedly confirm Florence Pugh’s excellent work as Natasha’s “sister” and fellow Widow Yelena. Their surrogate father, the Red Guardian (David Harbour), is a fun treat as well, a blowhard who’s finally admitting his mistakes and realizing that the people around him never believed in the ideology as he did.
The MCU and it's labyrinthine continuity might intimidate some viewers, but this film stands on its own as a spy thriller, though not necessarily a crash course in cinematic superheroes.
The Rhythm Section
Stephanie Patrick (Blake Lively) escapes a life of addiction and, in this case, street walking by finding work as a spy assassin. As a college student, she skipped a flight the rest of her family was taking home. The plane crashed, and she dove deep into drugs to numb the pain. Finally, however, information comes to light that makes it clear it was a terrorist act, not an accident, that brought the plane down.
The film might qualify as the grimmest entry on this list, focusing on Stephanie’s brokenness before her mission and her self-destructiveness even after sobriety. Unlike many of these films, there’s a definite sense of “she’s not good enough to pull this off” permeating the proceedings. Yet, in a sea of hyper-competent badasses, she sticks out as reckless and very lucky.
Jude Law also makes for an excellent mentor who might also be out to kill her.
Hanna (Saoirse Ronan) has lived a life of isolation with her father, Erik (Eric Bana), in the woods for as long as she can remember. For years, Erik has trained in armed and unarmed combat, all with the intent of someday facing off against a woman named Marissa (Cate Blanchett). Hanna knows little of why beyond her father has a secret, and Marissa wishes to kill him to prevent him from ever sharing it. For reasons left unstated, Erik has told Hanna she will choose to kill Marissa or die by the woman’s hand, suggesting he can’t or won’t eliminate the woman himself. Now that Hanna is 15, the time has come to make that choice.
While director Joe Wright runs decidedly hot or cold, he knows how to play with imagery. Hanna showcases that well. While this film takes a more grounded approach—think more Darkest Hour, less his adaptation of Anna Karenina—it presents some beautiful compositions. The final set-piece, an abandoned and dilapidated amusement park, in particular, shows off his directorial skills. The whole set feels haunted.
The actors give fine performances all around. Blanchett is predictably good, and Bana presents layers he rarely got an opportunity to show American film audiences. Ronan, however, does breakout work here. Around 16 at the time of filming, she performs with a confidence that actors twice her age struggle to assert.
Also known as the godmother of all female-led action movies, Alien remains a seminal cinema classic, both because it still scares the bejesus out of audiences today and because it introduced Sigourney Weaver to audiences. The plot follows a group of miners routing a load from a distant planet back to Earth. Along the way, they stumble on a crashed alien spacecraft loaded with strange eggs that hatch a deadly parasite.
We'll spare the other details for any readers who have somehow managed to avoid learning the plot twists and shocks of Alien all these years. Weaver makes an auspicious debut in a role that demands solid acting talent and physical stamina. She'd go on to evolve that screen persona in Aliens, and the subsequent sequels to this film.
Mad Max: Fury Road
Charlize Theron strikes again in the movie often referred to as the best of the 2010s. Director George Miller returns to the story of Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy), a mysterious loner trying to survive in a radioactive wasteland following World War III. Though he may get the title role, Fury Road really belongs to Theron's Furiousa, a one-armed rogue trying to rescue a harem of young women from the despotic Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne). Wild chases in the desert ensue, with some of the most intense–and hilarious–action ever put to the screen.