The action genre is thriving thanks to groundbreaking and daring franchises like Mission: Impossible and John Wick. Action is so hot that it’s quickly expanding, allowing new voices to tell increasingly diverse stories, many of which are led by inspiring and badass heroines.
Jennifer Lopez is the latest actress to lead a big-budget action film with Netflix’s The Mother. Like her, many other BIPOC actresses have gone into the action genre in the past decade with varying degrees of success. While not every film has been a decisive hit, they have all contributed to the continuous expansion of action into a more inclusive genre.
10 ‘The Mother’ (2023)
Jennifer Lopez stars in Niki Caro‘s action thriller, The Mother. The plot centers on a highly-skilled assassin who comes out of hiding after the men who have been pursuing her for years kidnap the 12-year-old daughter she was forced to give for adoption.
Although formulaic at points and with mostly thinly-written characters, The Mother is a gripping thriller thanks to Lopez’s committed performance. Indeed, the actress is worth the two-hour runtime; coupled with Caro’s confident, dynamic direction, The Mother is a worthwhile entry in the action genre.
9 ‘Everly’ (2014)
Oscar nominee Salma Hayek leads the 2014 action thriller Everly. The plot centers on a woman who spends four years as a sex slave for a violent yakuza clan. Escaping and determined to protect her family, she becomes a fearsome warrior hellbent on revenge.
Violent and brutal, Everly benefits from director Joe Lynch‘s assured, stylish work behind the camera. However, Hayek is the main reason to watch Everly; the beloved Mexican actress delivers a confident gut-punch of a performance, blending pain and anger to create a powerful and exhilarating portrayal of revenge. If only the other characters were as compelling as she is, the movie might be an all-time great entry in the action genre.
8 ‘Colombiana’ (2011)
Zoe Saldaña might be best known as the modern sci-fi queen, but she is also a certified action heroine, and the 2011 film Colombiana proves it. The plot follows Cataleya Restrepo, a cold and infallible assassin who works as a contract killer while planning to take revenge on the men who killed her parents.
Colombiana soars on Saldaña’s intense performance. The film is uneven, and the narrative is far too messy to be satisfying. However, raw and kinetic action sequences guided by Saldaña’s ferocious portrayal result in a tense and entertaining action thriller that would’ve been better had it fully embraced its campy sensibilities.
7 ‘Miss Bala’ (2011)
The Mexican action thriller Miss Bala centers on Laura, a young woman dreaming of becoming a beauty pageant queen. However, she soon becomes involved with a violent cartel and enters the dangerous world of drug trafficking.
Sacrificing elaborate action setpieces in favor of a compelling and affecting story, Miss Bala is a harrowing portrayal of the war against drugs elevated by Gerardo Naranjo‘s technically proficient directing. Powered by an outstanding performance from Mexican-American actress Stephanie Sigman, Miss Bala is an anxious and heart-pounding thriller that packs a powerful punch.
6 ‘Black Panther: Wakanda Forever’ (2022)
The Marvel Cinematic Universe produced one of its most daring and emotionally poignant entries with Ryan Coogler‘s Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. Set after T’Chala’s tragic death, the film revolves around Shuri (Letitia Wright) coming to terms with her new place as Wakanda’s future queen and heir to the Black Panther mantle while fighting against the unexpected threat of Namor.
The film has all the qualities of a Marvel blockbuster, including exciting action sequences, elaborate worldbuilding, and an endless parade of familiar faces. However, Wakanda Forever is really a love letter to family and an exploration of duty and legacy, brought to life by a stellar cast led by some of the MCU’s best female characters.
5 ‘The Woman King’ (2022)
Oscar-winner Viola Davis leads an impressive ensemble in Gina Prince-Bythewood‘s historical epic The Woman King. The film tells the story of General Nanisca and the Agojie warriors tasked with protecting the kingdom of Dahomey in 1820s Africa.
Elegantly directed and dynamically staged, The Woman King is a fierce, majestic, crowd-pleasing epic and a massive step forward for representation. The mighty Viola Davis, one of her generation’s most versatile and accomplished performers, delivers yet another spectacular performance, while Prince-Bythewood cements herself as one of the best directors in the action genre.
4 ‘Coffy’ (1973)
The legendary Pam Grier stars in the groundbreaking blaxploitation classic Coffy. The film revolves around the title character, a woman who becomes a vigilante and takes arms against the heroin dealer responsible for her sister’s increasing addiction.
Coffy is a pioneering entry in the action genre, depicting a liberated, resourceful, and ruthless Black woman fighting back against male prejudice and violence. Released during a pivotal time for race relations, Coffy was a pioneering and game-changing success, presenting a strong and competent heroine that Black audiences could rally behind and root for.
3 ‘Lady Snowblood’ (1973)
Meiko Kaji became a timeless cinematic icon thanks to her seminal performance in Toshiya Fujita‘s 1973 revenge film Lady Snowblood. Alternating between past and present, the film centers on Yuki, a woman seeking revenge on the men who killed her father and brother and sexually assaulted her mother.
Like all the best movies, Lady Snowblood packs multitudes of thematic meaning underneath its blood-spattered surface. However, it still excels as a violent and satisfying revenge thriller, thanks to Meiko Kaji’s fearsome performance and Fujita’s penchant for eye-popping, unforgettable visuals.
2 ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ (2000)
Ang Lee‘s Oscar-winning epic Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon tells the story of a powerful sword entrusted to a legendary warrior by her lover, a renowned swordsman. However, the sword gets stolen by a masked thief, leading to an exciting chase to recover it.
Sweeping, exhilarating, and emotionally poignant, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a timeless love story and nothing short of a modern-day action masterpiece. Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi shine as the story’s leads, challenging gender dynamics and redefining the female role within the action genre. Elegant and full of extravagant action setpieces, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a before and after for 21st-century action.
1 ‘Everything Everywhere All at Once’ (2022)
Michelle Yeoh is a cinematic icon of the action genre, thanks to her many roles throughout the years. However, her work in the Daniels‘ absurdist action-comedy Everything Everywhere All at Once ranks as her best. The film centers on Evelyn Wang, a Chinese-American woman who finds herself in the middle of a multiversal war against an all-powerful being.
Everything Everywhere All at Once is a thoughtful exploration of identity and the immigrant experience wrapped around a hectic and unhinged martial arts movie. Yeoh deftly balances the physicality of the action sequences with the story’s emotional weight, resulting in a rich and layered performance that reaches new heights for an action movie.
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