In a sea of testosterone-fuelled men wielding guns, brandishing swords and walking away from explosions in slo-mo on screen, female-led action movies are like a breath of fresh air. Women bring a certain nuance and decision-drive refinement to the age-old caricature of the “action hero”—a character that has been historically reserved for men. Despite this, there continues to be a dearth of female-led action movies where the women are more than accessories to the tough, rugged male protagonist who sets out to serve his country or save the world. Below, we compile 13 movies that showcase incredible performances by action heroines that are a marvel to watch.
The tale of Shivani Shivaji Roy, a Crime Branch officer portrayed by Rani Mukerji in this action-thriller, tackles the problems she faces as she tries to pin down and disassemble a child-trafficking mafia by confronting the mastermind behind it all. As if Mukerji taking down the mafia wasn’t enough, the film offers a stellar OST that won a Filmfare award for Best Sound Design.
Naam Shabana (2017)
The sequel to 2015’s Baby directed by Neeraj Pandey, Naam Shabana follows the story of Shabana, a middle-class girl living in Mumbai with her mother, who gets into an altercation with goons on the street when they try to harass her. When her friend Jai is murdered by the same gang that harassed her, Shabana sets out on a mission to seek revenge. Soon enough, she’s approached by a top-tier secret agency that offers her the aid she needs to find and kill the miscreants in exchange for her indispensable contribution to the agency.
This action-packed crime thriller sheds light on many deep-rooted issues including honour killings in states like Haryana. Meera (Anushka Sharma) is on her way to a luxurious vacation at a hotel (presumably in the NCR region) with her partner Arjun (Neil Bhoopalam) when they stumble upon a young girl getting kidnapped at a dhaba they’ve made a pitstop at. Danger and chaos ensue as the couple is chased by the kidnappers. In what can only be marked as a marvellous performance by Sharma, NH10 offers the viewers pristine cinematography and state-of-the-art editing.
The Woman King (2022)
The Woman King stars Emmy and Academy award-winning Viola Davis as General Nanisca, leader of the all-female group of warriors, the Agojie, that protected the West African kingdom of Dahomey during the 17th to 19th centuries. Set in the 1820s, the movie follows Nanisca, as she strives to liberate Dahomean women abducted by slavers from the Oyo Empire. Davis also received the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Actress for the same film.
Run Lola Run (1998)
This German action-thriller follows Lola (Franka Potente) as she tries to aid her boyfriend Manni (Moritz Bleibtreu) in submitting a loot to his boss. But when he accidentally leaves the 100,000-mark payment on the subway, Lola must sprint through the streets of Berlin, with the ultimate goal of begging her father for the same lump sum to help her boyfriend before he does something irrevocable. The movie also garnered bonus points for the master conceptualisation and visual artistry showcased.
Charlie’s Angels (2000)
In this cult-classic movie directed by Joseph McGinty Nichol, we follow Dylan Sanders (Drew Barrymore), Alex Munday (Lucy Liu) and Natalie Cook (Cameron Diaz) as they navigate an impossible-to-complete task delegated to them by their boss, Charlie: to track down a kidnapped, soon-to-be billionaire Eric Knox (Sam Rockwell) and keep his top-secret voice-identification software out of lethal hands.
Raazi is a 2018 spy action thriller film directed by Meghna Gulzar, inspired by the real-life events of a RAW agent who marries in to a family of military officers in Pakistan to relay top-secret information before the impending war between India and Pakistan in 1971. Alia Bhatt plays 20-year-old Sehmat Khan, who wishes to continue the long-standing tradition of serving her country and posing as a RAW agent in secrecy even as she gets married upon her father’s request. The film is adapted from Harinder Sikka’s 2008 novel Calling Sehmat.
Jai Gangaajal (2016)
Jai Gangaajal is a 2016 Indian crime drama film directed by Prakash Jha. It is a follow-up to the 2003 crime film Gangaajal and stars Priyanka Chopra Jonas in the lead role. It follows the tale of Abha Mathur (Chopra Jonas), an honest and dedicated IPS officer who is met with several challenges and bureaucratic snags as she tries to fight a corrupt home minister. When she is employed by the Home Minister himself, Abha is expected to surrender to the corrupt machinery, but instead, she fights tooth and nail to weed out crime and fight anarchy.
Starring Vidya Balan as Vidya Bagchi, this action thriller follows a pregnant wife searching for her lost husband, which ultimately leads her from London to Kolkata during Durga Puja. The film was critically acclaimed for its guerrilla-filmmaking techniques on Kolkata’s city streets to avoid attracting attention. Balan’s performance in Kahaani is hailed as one of her best performances to date.
Miss Congeniality (2000)
This cult-classic comedy-action-drama flick stars Sandra Bullock in one of her most famous performances. In it, Bullock plays Gracie Hart, a tomboy agent who is tasked with going undercover as a contestant when a terrorist threatens to bomb the Miss United States pageant. Bullock’s playful acting equipped with an outstanding OST earned Miss Congeniality several awards, including two Golden Globes.
Lara Croft (2001)
Before Angelina Jolie set out on a mission to solve and bring attention to global issues of poverty, bullying and gun violence, she played Lara Croft, a character from the popular video game series, Tomb Raider. The Illuminati in Venice, owing to a special kind of planetary alignment, are in search of a key that rejoins two halves of a mysterious artefact, “the Triangle” which must be completed by the final phase, the solar eclipse. The film follows Jolie as Lara Croft, who tries to prevent the Illuminati from rejoining the lost halves and hence exploiting the ultimate powers it will give them.
Deepika Padukone plays ISI agent Rubina Mohsin in Pathaan and is joined by Shah Rukh Khan, an exiled RAW agent, as they try to fight Jim, a former RAW agent (John Abraham) on a mission to spread a deadly lab-generated virus across the country. Pathaan hit screens in January this year, becoming the second highest-grossing Hindi film of all time, and marking several firsts at the Box Office.
Tiger Zinda Hai (2017)
This 2017 spy-action thriller starring Katrina Kaif and Salman Khan is a sequel to Ek Tha Tiger (2012). Kaif, who plays Zoya Humaini-Rathore, must come out of hiding to aid Avinash “Tiger” Singh Rathore (Khan), as they join forces to rescue a group of nurses being held hostage by a terrorist organisation in Iraq. Tiger and Zoya, now married with a son, live in hiding in Innsbruck and are contacted by two RAW agents who inform them of the nurses being held hostage and ask for their aid in rescuing them. Despite showing initial reluctance, Tiger accepts the mission at Zoya’s insistence.
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