Angelina Jolie as Lara Croft in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001)
Angelina Jolie’s journey toward becoming Hollywood’s action-movie queen began with this blockbuster adaptation of a videogame series. The film was a mess, but as the acrobatic, gun-wielding archaeologist Lara Croft, Jolie more than proved herself capable of handling the genre’s considerable physical requirements without losing her sex appeal. Consider this Jolie’s audition tape for roles in such action flicks as Mr. & Mrs. Smith, Wanted, and, most recently, Salt.
Uma Thurman as The Bride in Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003) and Kill Bill: Vol. 2 (2004)
It’s no small task carrying 247 minutes’ worth of celluloid — especially when it’s a two-volume martial-arts epic in which the protagonist kills 77 characters (according to Movie Body Counts). But Thurman managed to pull it off while making The Bride both a believable over-the-top killing machine and an emotionally sympathetic victim.
Cameron Diaz, Drew Barrymore, and Lucy Liu as the Angels in Charlie's Angels (2000)
Why not? This update of the 1970s TV crime drama was more fun than it had any right to be — just don’t bring up 2003’s Full Throttle. And more important, its $264 million worldwide gross confirmed that audiences were ready to embrace a trio of heroines in an otherwise testosterone-infused roller coaster of a movie.
Ziyi Zhang as Jen Yu in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)
Can you leap 30 feet into a forest or simultaneously kick two warriors while in midair? I thought not.
Sigourney Weaver as Ellen Ripley in Alien (1979) and Aliens (1986)
In a role that was once intended for a male actor, Weaver effortlessly transformed Ripley from a rose-to-the-occasion survivor in Alien to a full-fledged E.T. butt-kicker in Aliens.
Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor in Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
With newly chiseled biceps and a foul mouth, Hamilton — like Sigourney Weaver in the Alien series — turned Sarah Connor into one lethal and acerbic heroine. For instance, Connor breaks the arm of her psychiatrist and then remarks, ”There’s 215 bones in the human body. That’s one.” In other words: Don’t you dare think about messing with Sarah Connor.
Halle Berry as Jinx Johnson in Die Another Day (2002)
Hot off her Oscar win for Monster’s Ball (2001) and two years before that superhero disaster that shall not be named, Berry portrayed Bond girl, Jinx Johnson, who managed to steal the spotlight from 007 — both for her memorable orange-bikini ocean entrance and her slick sword fighting (aboard a plummeting airplane, no less!) with Rosamund Pike.
Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman in Batman Returns (1992)
Pfeiffer’s leather-clad feline villain gave a whole new meaning to the word meow in Tim Burton’s somber (and vastly underappreciated) Batman sequel.
Pam Grier as Foxy Brown in Foxy Brown (1974)
As a pseudo sequel to the 1973 blaxploitation film Coffy, Foxy Brown cemented Grier’s status as one of cinema’s earliest female action stars and catapulted the title character into the pop culture lexicon. (As a result, Quentin Tarantino cast Grier as the lead in his 1997 homage to blaxploitation films, Jackie Brown.)
Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia in the Star Wars trilogy (1977, 1980, 1983)
Anyone who can strangle a giant slug while wearing a skimpy slave getup belongs on this list.
Milla Jovovich as Leeloo in The Fifth Element (1997)
While Jovovich may be better known these days for Resident Evil (the new installment, ”Afterlife,” hits screens this weekend), it was the model-turned-actress’ work in Luc Besson’s futuristic passion project that introduced the world to her action heroine potential. Key scene: A pissed-off Leeloo single-handedly disposes of a dozen alien goons while kicking and flipping through the air like an Olympic gymnast.
Anne Parillaud as Nikita in La Femme Nikita (1990)
The second film on this list directed by Luc Besson, La Femme Nikita follows a teenage convict who is trained as an undercover assassin for a French intelligence agency. Nikita has already been remade as the 1993 U.S. movie Point of No Return and the late-1990s Canadian series La Femme Nikita, and now on the CW as Nikita (starring Maggie Q). But all these reinterpretations followed Parillaud’s remarkable performance as an assured killer and a compassionate, romantic young woman.
San in Princess Mononoke (1997)
Leave it to Japanese anime director Hayao Miyazaki to dream up a female warrior just as athletically intimidating and bewitchingly beautiful as any of the live-action characters on this list. Whether she’s attacking the nearby industrial town while riding on top of a fierce wolf or chewing and essentially regurgitating food into the mouth of the severely injured Prince Ashitaka, San is one cinematic chick who’s flat-out impossible to forget. (Yuriko Ishida voiced San in the original Japanese version, while Claire Danes handled the role for the English dub).
Franke Potente as Lola in Run Lola Run (1998)
Here’s the only action heroine who completed her objective thanks in part to quantum mechanics. Lola has to find 100,000 deutsche marks in 20 minutes to prevent her boyfriend from robbing a bank. The film depicts three parallel universes in which the tiniest of events can drastically alter Lola’s ultimate outcome. As the title character, Potente (who’d later star in The Bourne Identity) excelled at conveying Lola’s single-minded determination, as well as some darn impressive athletic stamina.
Zoe Saldana as Neytiri in Avatar (2009)
As a result of James Cameron’s groundbreaking advances in performance-capture technology, Saldana was able to craft a digital character that was so ”human” in her interactions with others that we quickly forgot we were staring at a chain of zeros and ones. As for Neytiri’s worthiness as an action heroine, let’s just say she’s pretty handy with a bow and arrow.