Quentin Tarantino‘s legacy is pretty much already secure. Even if he retired now he’d be remembered as one of film’s great directors, though we allegedly have one more film before that happens. One more outside of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, mind, which further cements his place in the pantheon of cinema.
If the summer of 2017 has accomplished nothing else, it’s confirmed that women can kick some blockbuster ass just as well as the boys. Whether it be Charlize Theron’s 80’s action acrobatics in Atomic Blonde, Zoe Saldana’s continued butt kickery as Gamora, or the long overdue cinematic debut of Wonder Woman, this summer blockbuster season has been a big one for female-focused fight scenes. Obviously, this season of action movies didn’t invent that trend. Don’t be ridiculous. It’s just been a long overdue coming out party.
During this summer of some top tier lady action heroics, we here at CGM decided it was time to honour the finest action heroines in the history of the face-punching genre. They may have been few and far between over the years, but when they connect, they endure. So, what better way could there possibly be to honour the rich history of women action heroes than with a Top Ten listicle? That’s a rare tribute that occurs far too rarely—especially on the Internet. Thankfully, we’re brave enough to do it (note: by “brave,” I mean, “not brave at all.” This is long overdue).
So without further ado please join us in a top ten countdown of the finest female action movie heroes to ever grace the silver screen. This list is definitive. All others are false. Trust us.
10) Alice (The Resident Evil Franchise, 2002-2017)
Ok, so perhaps the Resident Evil movies aren’t exactly high art. However, they are damn good trash. More importantly, they are damn good trash that has been led by an action heroine for no less than six movies. That’s pretty impressive and a case can be made that Milla Jovovich is one of the more underrated action stars of her era. The actress deserves a spot on the list all her own, but I decided to divvy this up by character so it makes sense to go with her most repeated role. Over 15 years, Jovovich’s Alice grew from a reluctant hero to a super-powered zombie-killing machine and it was the only element of the franchise that wasn’t hard to believe. Jovovich did it all with grace, humour, and enough badass attitude to level an entire army of zombies without a punch thrown (note: she threw plenty). The actress likely deserved a better franchise than this to show off her action chops (she would have been one hell of a Wonder Woman), but at least she elevated this series to glorious pulp for far longer than anyone else could have managed.
9) Samantha Caine/Charly Baltimore (The Long Kiss Goodnight, 1996)
Here’s a forgotten 90’s relic that deserves a little attention. Almost a decade before the Bourne movies, Geena Davis played a housewife named Samantha Caine who slowly learned that she was an amnesia-stuck assassin named Charly Baltimore (seriously, what a name!). In this glorious bit of pulpy nonsense written with snappy perfection by Shane Black and directed with lovably ludicrous style by Renny Harlin, Geena Davis proved she could be a dynamite action heroine and villain simultaneously. The Long Kiss Goodnight remains just as fresh, goofy, shocking, and gloriously insane today as it was in the mid-90s. It’s a shame the movie wasn’t successful enough for Davis to get a few more action movies under her belt, because she was off to a hell of a start before Cutthroat Island cut that dream short. Still, at least we can savour this brilliant little noir/comedy/action epic with her doling out one-liners and face-punches.
8) Sarah Connor (Terminator 2: Judgement Day, 1991)
In the first Terminator movie Sarah Connor was mostly a victim running away from robo-Schwarzenegger. When it came time for part two, however, writer/director James Cameron decided to change it up. T2’s Sarah Connor trained herself to become a survival machine to protect her son (and saviour of humankind). Linda Hamilton had zero problems proving she could shoot guns, whoop butts, and protect the future of humanity with the best of them in a snarling yet empathetic performance that should have launched her career to a new level. Unfortunately, further action heroine opportunities never came, but at least Hamilton delivered one iconic mama saviour to be cherished. She even somehow proved to be an onscreen action match for Arnold Schwarzenegger in his prime. Not many performers could have pulled that off. God bless.
7) Furiosa (Mad Max: Fury Road, 2015)
Burned by an apocalyptic madman/rapist and determined to save the lives of innocent women in need, Furiosa was a blast of cold water to the face of macho action movie supremacy in the stunning Mad Max: Fury Road. Everyone expected the titular Max to be the hero, but as always, he only assumed that role reluctantly (ya know, just like the rest of the franchise). The true hero and heart of the film was the vengeance and compassion-fuelled Furiosa who proved to be a match for Max on every level, even with one robo-arm tied behind her back. The character was an instant pop culture icon and cosplay favourite, one strong enough that if George Miller ever decides to revive his marquee action apocalypse series again, there’s no way he can do it without her. Charlize Theron suddenly assumed the role of an action star exclusively thanks to this masterpiece and it’s hard to deny her that butt-kicking glory given her brilliant work here.
6) Trinity (The Matrix Trilogy, 1999-2003)
If you were around in 1999 to see The Matrix in the theatre, there’s no denying the impact on action movies of the opening sequence where Trinity introduced bullet time jump kicks to the cinematic lexicon and an icon was born. A powerful fighter and brilliant hacker who can save the world in skintight leather and high heels (no easy feat, people), Trinity burst off the screen and briefly made Carrie-Anne Moss a pop culture icon. Sure, the sequels sadly dulled the character and Moss’ career, but that masterpiece of a first film still exists and Moss’ portrayal of Trinity in it will be adored long after everyone born before the year 2000 is dead and buried.
5) Wonder Woman (Wonder Woman, 2017-????)
It took far too long for Wonder Woman to finally make it to the big screen, but thankfully the wait was worth it. Patty Jenkins’ WW1 epic combined all of the most beloved representations of Wonder Woman into a single glorious superhero fable, while Gal Gadot proved all haters wrong and nailed the role. The flick felt like something destined to be beloved for years after a single viewing and Gadot showed that she can keep this Wonder Woman game going for as long as she damn well pleases. It’s a shame there is only one of these movies at the moment, but don’t worry Internet! I’ve got a feeling they’ll make another one of these movies quite soon. Call it a hunch!
4) Princess Leia/Rey (Star Wars, 1977-????)
Ok, so this is a bit of a cheat. However, there’s no way to do an action heroine list without acknowledging Carrie Fisher’s feisty and ground-breaking work in the genre. There’s also no way to deny that her character isn’t quite as badass as the boys in the holy trilogy, while Daisy Ridley’s Rey is poised to be a new Jedi icon for a generation. Still, it’s too early to praise Rey as one of the greats and too late to give Leia the top spot. So it makes the most sense to split the vote. None of the other characters on this list would likely exist without Leia and there’s a chance that Rey will one day rule them all. For now, these (likely) relatives share a spot in the history of action movies while a torch is being past between them.
3) Beatrix Kiddo/The Bride (Kill Bill Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, 2003-2004)
It seemed odd to cast Uma Thurman as the lead in an action movie fiesta back in the early 2000s, yet as all genre movie fans know: in Quentin we trust. Tarantino knew what he was doing. In Beatrix Kiddo/The Bride he created one of the great action movie heroes on the 21st century and in Thurman he found one hell of an action star. No action flick heroine has been responsible for such bloodshed and few have done it with such style. The Kill Bill movies are so deliciously violent, movie-drunk, and excessive that they can be too much for many viewers. However, no one can deny that The Bride stands high in the ranks of action heroines. Uma killed it and (spoiler alert) Bill for good measure.
Coffy might be crude and rude to contemporary eyes given that it’s a down and dirty exploitation movie from a cinematic era with few rules. Yet, there’s no denying that Pam Grier is one of the most badass women to ever shotgun her way through a genre film and this is her most iconic role. A nurse who moonlights as a vigilante, Coffy cleaned up the streets her way and stuck fear into the heart of every evil man who dared to cross her path. We could use more remorselessly badass heroines like her in movies today. That would take another Pam Grier though, and sadly there’s only one of her. She broke the mould, spat on it, called it “sugar,” and then blasted all the bastard men who created the mould. That woman is an icon and Coffy is her finest hour.
Most folks would list all of Ripley’s appearances in the Alien franchise for an article like this, but we know better. Sure, Ripley was a ground-breaking genre movie lead in every initial Alien entry. However, there was only one time that she was a full on action heroine. That’s in Aliens, one of the greatest action movies ever made. Sigourney Weaver grabbed her sci-fi guns and proved to be more powerful than the entire squad of marines that let her down. She did it with enough intelligence and talent to earn an Oscar nomination for her troubles, something that no other action movie star ever accomplished. There’s a reason: she’s a stone cold badass in the movie. Thanks to James Cameron’s characteristic aversion to subtlety, the feminist subtext of Aliens screeches off the screen louder than a chestburster—yet Weaver carries that weight with ease. Plus she got to deliver one of the all-time great action movie one-liners before dispatching that horrible Queen Alien once and for all. If that scene alone doesn’t deserve a top spot on this list, I don’t know what does.
Annnnnd just for fun, here are ten honourable mentions that just missed the cut:
The Angels (Charlie’s Angels)
Jen Yu/Yu Shu Lien (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon)
Thanks to global warming, hitting March does not mean that we’re out of winter yet! In fact, we’re probably in the midst of the worst winter stretch. You know, that special time of year when the cold is at its coldest and everyone is so sick of it that things feel particularly dire. It’s that chapter in every winter season where most folks are over the novelty of snow and can’t even bother to pretend that they like being outside anymore. In other words, it’s the ideal season to be an indoor kid; a perfect time to snuggle up with some movies and avoid setting foot outside at all costs.
Some folks like to watch mood-lifting comedies or films set in the tropics during this butthole stretch of winter in the hopes of finding escape. Not me! Nope, this is the season to really dig into bitterly cold slices of cinema, because you can deeply relate to the plight of the characters. It’s the time of year when I like to dive into what I call “Winter Misery Movies.” There are many of these, more than you’d think. Best of all, most of them are genre movies in the corner of cinema that we specialize in here at CGM. Rather than keeping these especially harsh winter genre flicks to myself this year, I thought I’d share them with all you fine readers in a handy top ten list.
Now, this unofficial genre is so extensive that I couldn’t fit in all of my favourites, so feel free to check the “honourable mentions” sections below for a few extra titles if ten winter misery movies aren’t nearly enough to get you through the next few weeks. However, the following top ten titles are the ones to start with. They’ll take all of your bitter n’ cold feelings that spring from the winter season and transform them into nasty and bloody cinema. What could be better than that? For cynical and cinema-loving souls like myself? Nothing. So let’s dig in, shall we?
10) Snowpiercer (2013)
What better place could there be to start this list than an apocalyptic world of winter misery? Korean filmmaker Joon Ho Bong’s satirical action epic presents a world destroyed by a climate change experiment gone wrong, leaving the last remnants of humanity on a train perpetually touring the snow covered globe. Funny, biting, bloody, and relentlessly entertaining, it’s a genre movie delight (it stars Chris Evans, so delight is inevitable). However, also one with a bitter aftertastes that presents humanity in pretty harsh terms. You know, a feel bad work of pure entertainment. Stirring stuff that also proves that cold winter chill you’re escaping is only a few removed away from end-of-the-world territory when cast in the right cynical light.
9) The Hateful Eight (2015)
Quentin Tarantino’s latest effort snapped his recent hot streak of blockbuster success and it’s likely that even he saw that one coming. After all his Kurt Russell/Sam Jackson headlined Western is a nasty provocation rooted in all of the hate and prejudice found at America’s core. Sure, it’s also a fun drawing room mystery filled with hysterical dialogue and explosions of violence…but it is far from a nice film. It’s bitter and brutal. Not coincidentally, Tarantino set the movie in a harsh winter storm that forced all of his reprehensible characters in the same room together, a vicious room as inhospitable as the blizzard outdoors. That was no accident. It all fits in the piece. It might seem too soon to give The Hateful Eight a spot on this list given that it’s barely a few months old; however, I feel like the reputation for this flick is only going to grow over the years. So it makes sense.
8) Let The Right One In (2008)/Let Me In (2010)
Ah yes, a depressing childhood vampire love story that could only come from Sweden. Tomas Alfredon’s heartbreaking tone poem is about alienation in all forms. It’s a tragic film dedicated to the lonely and the disenfranchised. Sure, it’s also a pretty fantastic vampire movie, but only in ways that suit the filmmaker’s more high-minded themes. It only makes sense that this heartbreakingly sad tale of tragic love and vampirism take place in the winter. That adds to the overwhelming mood of the piece in powerful ways. Let The Right One In has grown into a bit of a cult classic over the last few years, and justifiably so. It’s a beautiful little horror film and that word doesn’t typically apply to this genre. Controversially, I’d say that Matt Reeves’ American remake Let Me In is about as good as the original, for those viewers who don’t like subtitles. Sure, it doesn’t change much but that’s entirely deliberate and the few changes Reeves does employ tend to enrich the experience. There are few remakes worth recommending as much as the original. Let Me In is one of them. Both deserve a spot on this list.
7) Frozen (2010)
Unfortunately, Adam Green’s fantastic situational horror flick has gotten overshadowed in recent years since it accidentally shares a title with one of the most successful animated films of all time (I sure hope no parents accidentally rented this for their kids…but it’s terrifyingly possible). It’s a simple story about a group of friends who accidentally get trapped on a ski lift over a particularly frigid night, gradually transforming into one of the great survival horror flicks of it’s era. If you want to see the pure horror potential of freezing temperatures, let Adam Hatchet Green take you on a ride you won’t forget. Do not watch this movie if you have a particular phobia for frostbite—or maybe watch it specifically if you do. Depends on how much you like to confront your personal fears through filmed entertainment I s’pose.
6) The Grey (2011)
There are very few movies that I’ve ever seen as spoiled by a trailer as Joe Carnahan’s The Grey. It was designed to be a very simple and direct survival/action/thriller about a group of oil workers trapped in Alaska and surrounded by wolves with only Liam Neeson to help them survive. Walk into the movie with no expectations and Carnahan will take you on a wild and chilly ride with Neeson as your guide. Watch the trailer and you’ll see all the best moments ruined, including the damn ending. I don’t know what they were thinking. That trailer really spoiled this fantastic winter thriller’s box office potential, but thankfully enough time has passed that you finally appreciate the white-knuckle thrill ride as intended. Just do yourself a favour and avoid the trailer before watching the movie.
5) The Great Silence (1968)
Sergio Corbucci might not have the same reputation as his Spaghetti Western contemporary Sergio Leone (The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly), but he really should. Corbucci delivered a stream of brilliantly nasty and darkly hilarious Spaghetti Westerns through the late 60s that are desperately in need of rediscovery. Yet his masterpiece is likely The Great Silence. It has none of the humour as his other efforts, but doubles down on nihilism. The film stars the great Klaus Kinski as a bounty hunter who travels to an isolated mountain town filled with folks with bounties on their heads desperately trying to escape society. His goal? Kill everyone and collect all the money. Yep, pretty harsh stuff and in Corbucci’s hands it turns into a downright dirty and violent affair with one of the most surprisingly bleak endings in the history of the genre. Plus it’s sent in a brutally bitter winter setting that suits the cold-hearted nature of the film rather perfectly. Throw in a fantastically unsettling Ennio Morricone score and you’ve got yourself one of the most bleakly brilliant Westerns ever made. A tough movie to find, but well worth tracking down for any winter misery movie marathon.
4) A Simple Plan (1998)
After spending the first decade of his career making the most wilfully absurd and fantastical genre movies that he could dream up, Sam Raimi decided to play things straight on A SimplePlan and delivered quite possibly his finest film. A terse little small town thriller about a gang of locals who stumble upon a bag of money and tear each other apart over it, the movie has many obvious influences. Pitched somewhere between Fargo and The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre, Raimi dialled by his wild instincts to deliver a painfully real thriller that goes for the heart and the jugular. Billy Bob Thornton delivers quite possibly his finest performance and Raimi very carefully toys with tension until he has the audience in his trap and pulls the ripcord. A harsh and resonant little thriller in desperate need of rediscovery. It was generally liked in ‘98, but also somewhat rudely dismissed as a Fargo knock off thanks to the “blood in the snow” setting. Thankfully, time has done it’s levelling thing and now A Simple Plan stands on its own rather nicely.
3) The Shining (1980)
Proof that even staying indoors is no escape from the brutal horrors of winter. Also…you know…a masterpiece…like all Stanley Kubrick joints.
2) Fargo (1996)
There are so many things to love about the Coen Brothers’ brilliant Fargo and so iconic images from this mundane crime comedy that have burned their way into our collective consciousness. Yet the sequence that always sticks out in my mind is when a cold, lonely, and desperate William H. Macy marches across an empty snow-filled parking lot to scrape the ice off his windshield while contemplating all of his failures and the kidnapping scenario complicating them all. If you’ve lived through a crappy winter, you know that feeling. The Coens captured it beautifully and then placed it within quite possibly the greatest crime/comedy of the 90s…and given that the decade was essentially defined by that genre, that’s really saying something.
1) The Thing (1982)
Finally, there was only one movie that could possibly top this list. One of the finest horror films ever made courtesy of John Carpenter, a fantastic ensemble cast, one of the greatest beards ever grown (good work Kurt Russell), astounding practical special effects that might never be topped, and of course one of the most brutal winter settings to ever trap a cast in a horror film. Carpenter was at the peak of his powers when he decided to remake one of his favourite childhood horror flicks. He took a clever campy genre classic and elevated it to a perfectly executed horror masterpiece without a frame out of place or a theme overstated. Rob Bottin’s ground-breaking effects created genuinely uncanny imagery that once seen is never forgotten. It’s damn near impossible to find fault in The Thing and it’s also a horror movie guaranteed to chill you to the bone in the midst of the latest round of snowmageddon. There’s no movie better to transform your winter aches into genre terror. Watch it in a snowstorm and prepare for nightmares.
Honourable Mentions (Just in case those ten movies weren’t cold and miserable enough for ya!):
The Empire Strikes Back (1980), Hanna (2011), The Ice Harvest (2005), Insomnia (either 1997 or 2002), The Last Winter (2006), McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), Misery (1990), Runaway Train (1985), The Thing From Another World (1951), 30 Days Of Night (2007)
The cinematically obsessed and possibly insane Quentin Tarantino is back just in time for Christmas and unsurprisingly, he’s up to his old tricks. Since Django wasn’t enough to scratch the genre-hopping director’s itch, he’s gone back to the West again. Thankfully, the movie doesn’t feel like a retread…or at least not one of Django Unchained anyways. As usual QT’s starting point for his latest film are other films. In this case, he’s combining the chilly morality of winter Westerns like The Great Silence or McCabe And Mrs. Miller with the artic paranoia of The Thing and the claustrophobic mind games of Reservoir Dogs. The result is an epic of sorts. A sprawling 70mm Western that takes place primarily in a single location, yet uses every inch of the oversized frames to tell a nasty, back-stabbing tale. It’s not Tarantino’s most ambitious movie, but it is a fascinating one that toys will all sorts of troubling notions surrounding violence and morality through jet black comedy that stings. Yep, its’ a Tarantino movie alight, just in time for the holidays.
Kurt Russell takes top billing as a blowhard bounty hunter with a moustache as big as his mouth. He’s riding through a snowstorm in a stagecoach with an expensive bounty (Jennifer Jason Leigh) that he plans to see hanged, when he runs into Samuel L. Jackson’s bounty hunter sitting on his own pile of valuable corpses looking for a ride. They’re soon joined by Walton Goggins, playing the dingbat future sheriff of the town they are both heading towards. However, a raging snowstorm forces them to stay in an isolated cabin filled with another gang of intriguing misfits. Bruce Dern plays a former civil war general, Tim Roth plays an aggressively British hangman, and Michael Madsen pops up as a very Michael Madsen-esque mysterious cowboy. It’s instantly clear that this is a dangerous bunch filled with secrets. Trouble is afoot now that they are all trapped together with a variety of guns and loose morals. Yep, it’s going to be a bloodbath…eventually.Tarantino takes his time setting the table for
Tarantino takes his time setting the table for The Hateful Eight. The first half of the film gradually introduces all the characters (some truthfully, some not) as well as the desolate situation. The gloriously wide and humblingly detailed 70mm frames initially establish a miserable and dangerous snow-covered landscape, but soon the rich images are used for smaller and more intriguing means. At times, Tarantino lingers on faces with flickers of expression filling the screen and speaking volumes. Or he uses the added widescreen real estate to tell separate stories in the foreground and background to intriguing effect. The tension is palpable, the world nasty and unpredictable. It all peaks with a twisted storytelling session that crams almost as much as Quentin had to say about race in Django: Unchained into a single round of barbed dialogue that explodes into the first act of overt violence in the film. Then it’s time for intermission.
Yep, as you might have heard Tarantino is rolling out The Hateful Eight like an old time epic along the lines of Citizen Kane. Come to the roadshow screening and you’ll get a stunning 70mm presentation, a fantastic overture of Ennio Morricone’s original score (which Tarantino supplemented with outtakes from Morricone’s score for The Thing), and an intermission that actually suits the storytelling style of the piece. After teasing, testing, and toying with the audience for the first half of his film, The Hateful Eight explodes into an utter bloodbath in the second act. Every character comes with hidden secrets (revealed through QT’s patented non-linear storytelling) and the tensions all boil over into explosions of violence. Yet none of it feels repetitive or overblown because Tarantino uses the second half of his film to explore the various types of onscreen violence and what they provoke out of audiences. Sometimes the explosions of blood offer silly slapstick, sometimes they are desperately shocking. Sometimes they come through careful build up, other times the violence explodes out of nowhere. It’s all in good fun until it’s not and then it’s fun again. Eventually, it all wraps up on a final murder that’s the most morally and narratively justified, yet viscerally the most difficult to watch. It’s a challenging exploration in violence from a filmmaker endlessly fascinated by the cinematic potential of such things.
The characters and performances are obviously wonderful. This corrupt world of untrustworthy a-holes is prime Tarantino material, milked for maximum comedic and dramatic value by the writer and his cast. Kurt Russell amusingly delivers a performance similar to his iconic turn in Big Trouble In Little China, playing the same type of swaggering moron who believes his own hype and hilariously speaks like John Wayne. Samuel L. Jackson gets his meatiest role from Tarantino in years and dives into his dirty monologues with a sense of glee that’s infectious. Walton Goggins opens the movie with what initially seems like a one-note, bonehead role then gradually transforms into the moral heart of an immoral story. Madsen, Roth, and Dern are all cast to type and deliver as only they can (which is to say, pretty damn well). Channing Tatum does a little scene-stealing when he gets the chance, but the performance of the film likely belongs to Jennifer Jason Leigh. Predominantly a silent role until gears shift in the grand finale, Leigh plays it close the chest, yet always displays far more characterization and emotion on her face n secret than most actors are capable of in the open. Her character can seem troublingly victimized at first, but it’s all deliberate misdirection and when Leigh finally gets to burst out of her silent shell, she steals away the film in the process.
Now, all that being said The Hateful Eight is not a perfect film (nor is any other Tarantino production). The big criticism is simply that it’s far too damn long. Sure, Tarantino makes use of that hefty running time by piling plot twists ontop of plot twists and masterfully building tension to a breaking point. Yet it still feels overly excessive and more than a little indulgent (especially when Quentin himself starts narrating one sequence for no particular reason). Sure, excess and indulgence is a big part of the charm of QT’s finest efforts, but that doesn’t mean he couldn’t tone things down and The Hateful Eight certainly would have benefitted from some trimming. Likewise, after the ambitious historical fiction of his last two outings, some might be disappointed by the comparative simplicity of this violent morality tale. This is not Tarantino’s finest film, yet at the same time it’s also cracking entertainment and a damn fine bit of genre movie bliss. Love him or loath him, there’s no denying that Tarantino has a gift for a certain brand of nasty entertainment that The Hateful Eight delivers in spades. It’s a vicious, unpredictable, bloody, beautifully shot, and expertly acted flick so brazenly entertaining and filthily intelligent that it makes the films playing in neighbouring theaters feel lifeless and beige. God-willing Tarantino doesn’t actually stick to his “ten films and retire” proclamations because he seems to be getting better and it would be a shame to think there are only two of his movies left to look forward to. The movie world sadly be a much tamer place without him and that’s not even remotely a good thing.
Leave it to Quentin Tarantino to not only turn the disgusting legacy of slavery into a ludicrously entertaining/empowering Spaghetti Western romp, but to also release it on Christmas day. The filmmaker is nothing if not ballsy and while he can be an easy whipping boy for directorial excess, he’s also just as talented as he thinks he is.