To celebrate this weekend’s opening of “Atomic Blonde,” in which Charlize Theron shoots first, and last, and seldom bothers to ask questions later, we’re paying tribute to other superwomen of the screen. Think of these as the Dirty Dozen of Badass Action Heroines.
“Resident Evil” franchise (2002 – present)
As Alice, the straight-shooting, neck-breaking, chemically-enhanced heroine who battles zombies inadvertently spawned by a multinational corporation, Milla Jovovich has been wowing fans with her purposeful stride, graceful agility, and fiercely determined grimaces for so many movies, you might think it’s well past time for her to run into Frankenstein, Dracula, and The Wolf Man, or to start hanging out with Abbott and Costello. The last installment, released earlier this year, was titled “Resident Evil: The Final Chapter.” Yeah, right.
“The Long Kiss Goodnight” (1996)
After years of oblivious bliss as a single mom and grade-school teacher, Geena Davis’ femme fatale is jolted out of long-term amnesia to recall her career as a singularly efficient CIA black op with a bad attitude and a killer instinct. At one point, she blows away two carloads of heavily armed bad guys while she skates across a frozen pond. At another point, she takes out a half-dozen or so assassins in a dark alley while maintaining a running argument with frenemy Samuel L. Jackson. In fact, she’s so tough that, when her daughter gets a boo-boo, she snaps: “Life is pain! Get used to it!” Yikes!
“Modesty Blaise” (1966)
Director Joseph Losey took a break from his string of grim and grimmer ‘60s dramas with a mad, mod burst of pop artistry based on the popular Peter O’Donnell comic strip (a long-cherished favorite of Quentin Tarantino) and starring Monica Vitti as the leggy and lethal spy gal Modesty Blaise. (As the title song aptly notes: “She is the perfect mistress of her art; she is the perfect mistress, too.”) Vitti strikes the perfect balance of sly sensuality and take-charge formidability, whether she’s swapping double entendres with partner-in-crime Willie Garvin (Terence Stamp) or coolly coping with Gabriel, the extreme arch villain flamboyantly played by Dirk Bogarde.
“Cleopatra Jones” (1973)
During the ‘70s heyday of Blaxploitation cinema, the strikingly statuesque stunner Tamara Dobson earned enduringly iconic status with her bodacious butt-bludgeoning as the title character in “Cleopatra Jones” (where she tangled with an ultra-butch Shelley Winters) and its 1975 sequel “Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold” (which pitted Dobson’s very special agent against a va-va-voom Stella Stevens as a lipstick-lesbian villainess). Even in their time, the “Cleopatra Jones” movies were dinged for their, ahem, less than positive depictions of non-cisgender characters. But the 6-foot-2 Dobson remained above censure, quite possibly because film critics and other mere mortals were afraid of her. Even now, near 11 years after her death, she’s still a scary lady.
“La Femme Nikita” (1990)
Long before he unleashed Scarlett Johansson as a brain-enhanced weapon of mass destruction in “Lucy” (2014), director Luc Besson put the fatale back into femme fatale by casting his then-wife Anne Parillaud as Nikita, a scruffy druggie who evolves into a proficient assassin. “La Femme Nikita” spawned an Americanized remake (1993’s “Point of No Return” with Bridget Fonda) and two different TV series. But no spinoff has matched the impact of the original, largely because of Parillaud’s definitive performance, which charges Nikita with alternating currents of savage defiance, cool efficiency, and forlorn vulnerability.
“Underworld” franchise (2003 – present)
Ever since the original “Underworld” (2003) launched the ongoing mythos of a centuries-old blood feud between vampires and werewolves, Kate Beckinsale has loomed large on multiple platforms (and in fan-person fantasies) as Selene, the duster-cloaked, spandex-clad vamp warrior who favors blazing guns over bared fangs, and routinely displays her supercharged offensive and defensive skills with slo-mo acrobatics. Sure, Beckinsale has earned more critical acclaim for her protean performances in films directed by John Schlesinger (“Cold Comfort Farm”), Rod Lurie (“Nothing but the Truth”), and Whit Stillman (“The Last Days of Disco,” “Love & Friendship”). But she never killed werewolves in any of those movies, so they don’t count here.
“Kill Bill,” Volumes 1 and 2 (2003 – 2004)
Quentin Tarantino exuberantly sampled visual and dramatic tropes from his favorite ‘60s and ‘70s movie genres — operatically excessive spaghetti Westerns and kung-phooey Chinese martial-arts melodramas — while concocting his over-the-top 2003/2004 diptych about a vengeful ex-assassin known only as The Bride. Uma Thurman vividly essayed this unstoppable anti-heroine with impressive poise and ferocious physicality as she sliced and diced her way through a string of former associates, scores of guilty bystanders, and anyone else who stood in the way of her settling accounts with the titular antagonist (David Carradine). Just how tough is the unbending Bride? At one point, she is literally buried alive by a sadistic adversary (Michael Madsen). So she waits until the dude departs the scene — and then she punches her way out of her coffin and digs herself out of the dirt. No, really.
“The Hunger Games” franchise (2012 – 2015)
As Jennifer Lawrence’s resourceful Katniss Everdeen struggled to survive and thrive during the four-film saga based on Suzanne Collins’ dystopian Young Adult novels, the odds seldom were in her favor. Still, she persisted. Along the way, Katniss gradually assumed a major role in the rebellion against an oppressive government that sanctioned a last-person-standing competition intended to both amuse and intimidate the masses. Lawrence made every step of the transition plausible and compelling, winning and sustaining the audience’s rooting interest while transforming herself into a character who’s equal parts role model, action hero, and extraordinarily accurate archer.
“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (2000)
There are enough female action heroes of Asian cinema — ranging from Hsu Feng in King Hu’s wuxia classic “A Touch of Zen” (1971) to the dynamic trio of Brigitte Lin, Cherie Chung, and Sally Yeh in Tsui Hark’s awesome “Peking Opera Blues” (1986), and beyond — to merit a listicle all by themselves. Michelle Yeoh earns pride of place here primarily, but not entirely, for her deeply felt and breathtakingly acrobatic performance as woman warrior Yu Shu Lien in Ang Lee’s internationally acclaimed epic. Yeoh and Chow Yun-Fat (as comrade-in-arms Li Mu Bai) provide heart and soul to enhance and counterbalance all the dazzling derring-do, subtly yet affectingly expressing the love that their tradition-bound characters are unable to express.
“Mad Max: Fury Road” (2015)
Prior to playing an “Atomic Blonde,” Charlize Theron was bald, bold, and bulked-up as Imperator Furiosa, a one-armed warrior who joins forces with post-apocalyptic antihero Mad Max (Tom Hardy) to outrun the army of a hideously disfigured tyrant, Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), and lead fugitive “breeders” (i.e., women heretofore valued only for their procreative prowess) across a desert wasteland to an oasis described as the “green place of many mothers.” Although Theron’s formidable Furiosa refuses to take sass or condescension from any man — not even Max, the nominal protagonist of the piece — she does allow Max to save her life with a blood transfusion. But only, it should be noted, after she delivers a grisly coup de grâce to psycho Joe.
Breathes there the woman, with soul so dead, who never to herself has said, “Get away from her, you bitch!” Sigourney Weaver earned her stripes as a sci-fi action-adventure heroine in the first “Alien” (1979) — where you couldn’t hear her scream in outer space because she never did — and continued to tough it out in her signature role as the redoubtable Ellen Ripley over the course of “Alien 3” (1992) and “Alien: Resurrection” (1997). But it was in James Cameron’s “Aliens,” the first sequel of the franchise, where she most powerfully hit the sweet spot where hardcore maternal instincts and industrial-strength badassery overlap.
After serving her apprenticeship in babes-behind-bars B-movies, Pam Grier began her decades-long reign as The Empress of Ass-Kicking by scoring a breakout hit with Jack Hill’s “Coffy,” playing a dedicated nurse who responds to her sister’s substance-abuse problem by annihilating an assortment of drug dealers, mob bosses, and criminally inclined flunkies. (The ad campaign proclaimed her “The baddest one-chick hit-squad that ever hit town,” and promised: “They call her ‘Coffy’ and she’ll cream you!”). In rapid succession, Grier followed up with “Foxy Brown” (1974) as another vengeful vigilante who launches a private war on drugs; “Sheba, Baby” (1975) as an ex-cop who gets medieval on the gangsters threatening her dad; and “Friday Foster” (1975) as a troubleshooting magazine photographer who gathers evidence against assassins. By the time she hooked up with longtime fan Quentin Tarantino — him again? — to memorably portray the title character in his “Jackie Brown” (1997), Grier had already attained the status of living legend. Twenty years later, nothing much has changed.