10 Kick-Ass, Female-Led Action Movies That Satisfy

We love a good woman-centered spy or assassin film here, the ones filled with running, shooting, great stunts, and even better fights. The 355 seemed poised to scratch the itch just perfect. Unfortunately, it did not. Instead, it disappointed most critics, and audiences didn’t seem to disagree.

If you’re anything like us, you still want to get your fix of women fighting injustice, breaking jaws, and more. With that in mind, here are ten women-centric run ‘n gun films that should make up for The 355 letdown.

Ava

ava
Courtesy of Vertical Entertainment

If you were hoping for a spy thriller from Jessica Chastain in particular, this might be more your speed.

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 sober but increasingly questioning what she’s doing. Family drama ensues when a job goes awry and she’s forced to 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 feel like a hat on a hat and sort of derail things for a bit. However, when the story is on Ava, her handler Duke (John Malkovich), fellow spy/killer Simon (Colin Farrell), and his daughter Camille (Diana Silvers), the movie hums. For those disappointed by 355’s action sequences, the hand-to-hand combat here should more than make up for it. A hotel fight involving Simon and Ava, in particular, has an appealing improvisational quality to match its blood-soaked brutality.

La Femme Nikita

La Femme Nikita
Courtesy of Gaumont Film Company

The progenitor of this current era of women-centric run ‘n gun films, 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.

Nikita (Anne Parillaud) was a teen addict and criminal who 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. Besson would also repeat this formula, with some tweaks, multiple times throughout his directing/writing/producing career. Will any of those make the list? Gotta read to find out!

The Protégé

protege
Courtesy of Lionsgate

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 is 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 it most is the weirdo sexual chemistry generated between Q and Michael Keaton as a fixer for the number 1 suspect behind Moody’s murder. Their energy ain’t exactly wholesome, but it was certainly one of the more intriguing romances in film of 2021.

Haywire

haywire
Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Soderberg does international espionage thriller with bone-crushing results is the logline on this one. While audiences seemed displeased by it, it connected with critics. With the gift of hindsight, viewers’ hesitance to embrace the film is understandable. Its rhythms are decidedly unusual for the genre.

However, the action is shot wonderfully clean, and the plot piles on stakes without losing the thread. In addition, it brings to bear a cavalcade of guest stars who are a blast to see 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.

There is the matter of Gina Carano 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’s no great shakes. 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.

Atomic Blonde

Atomic Blonde
Courtesy of Focus Features

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. It’s bruising fight choreography that, nonetheless, is also visually beautiful.

Charlize Theron, as the titular blonde, is reliably good. As a possible ally, James McAvoy is appealing slimy, both in morality and physical appearance. The soundtrack is excellent, especially if you spent any part of your life in the ’80s or your parent inundated you with that era’s synth-heavy styling.

Regardless of my own feelings, it 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 is an appreciated element of the movie.

Salt

Salt
Courtesy of Sony Pictures Releasing

A man named Orlov (Daniel Olbrychski) turns himself into Evelyn Salt (Angelina Jolie) without 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.

Now 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 is a good reminder of what Jolie can do with what is essentially 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

Anna
Courtesy of Lionsgate

Anna is another pretty woman is rescued from her life to be a spy assassin film from Luc Besson. This time out, the KGB plucks Anna (Sasha Luss) out of a life of poverty and domestic abuse. Their offer is simple. 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 is not nearly the actor Parillaud is, but the supporting players here are more recognizable and better utilized. It’s still inferior to Nikita, but as a trashier successor, it’s enjoyable.

Black Widow

Black Widow scaled
Courtesy of Marvel Studios

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’s a testament to how she’s grown into the character that her work here feels so effortless. It just feels like she gets Widow fully. As a result, it’s the loosest she’s ever been in any of her MCU performances 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 can be intimidating certainly, but this one largely stands on its own if you want a spy thriller, but not necessarily a crash course in cinematic superheroes.

The Rhythm Section

rhythm section
Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Another woman rescued from a life of addiction and, in this case, sex work by finding work as a spy assassin.

Here it is Stephanie Patrick (Blake Lively). 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 is probably 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 you.

Hanna

Hanna
Courtesy of Sony Pictures Releasing International

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 it will be her choice to kill Marissa or die by the woman’s hand, seemingly 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 for me, he knows how to play with imagery, and Hanna showcases that well. While this film takes a more grounded approach—think more Darkest Hour, less his adaptation of Anna Karenina—it nonetheless presents some beautiful compositions. This is particularly the case at the final set-piece, an abandoned and dilapidated amusement park. The whole set feels haunted despite we, as viewers, knowing there’s no supernatural element.

The acting is all superb. Blanchett is predictably good, and Bana presents layers he rarely got an opportunity to show American film audiences. Ronan, however, is an undeniable breakout. Around 16 at the time of filming, she performs with a confidence that actors twice her age struggle to assert.

This post was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.


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Tim Steven is a sad tomato, Tim Stevens is three miles of bad road. He’s also a therapist, staff writer and social media manager for The Spool, and a freelance writer with publications like ComicsVerse, Marvel.com, CC Magazine, and The New Paris Press. His work has been quoted in Psychology Today, The Atlantic, and MSN Ireland. Feel free to find him @UnGajje on Twitter or in a realm of pure imagination.