Recent spy thriller The 355 packed in a whole cast of strong women using their fighting, hacking, and espionage skills to take out their enemies, but even with stars Jessica Chastain, Lupita Nyong’o, and Penelope Cruz, the result was still a bit underwhelming. Luckily, that’s only one of many recent action thrillers led by powerful women. Here are 10 more female-led action thrillers to further your viewing of women taking charge onscreen.
John Wick co-director David Leitch launches another potential action franchise, anchored by Charlize Theron as a steely, efficient MI6 agent. Set on the eve of the Berlin Wall coming down, Atomic Blonde hearkens back to Cold War spy thrillers while adding a modern, action-oriented spin. Theron is mesmerizing whether she’s taking down assailants in a bravura single-take fight scene or seducing a French operative in a nightclub.
Birds of Prey
Margot Robbie’s brash, quippy Harley Quinn has been a bright spot in various DC superhero movies, and here she gets to lead her own team of misfit female anti-heroes, including the Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett). They work to bring down crime boss Black Mask (Ewan McGregor), although the nihilistic Harley mostly just enjoys creating colorful chaos.
After appearing in nine Marvel Cinematic Universe movies, Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff finally gets a solo showcase that delves into her past as a Russian double agent. The movie introduces Florence Pugh as Natasha’s foster sister Yelena Belova, who’s another product of the secret Black Widow program, and both make for formidable superheroes even without any special powers. It’s a globe-trotting espionage thriller in a superhero universe.
Catch the Fair One
Boxer Kali Reis makes an impressive debut, playing a former fighter tracking down the sex traffickers who abducted her sister. Catch the Fair One takes on a real-life social issue without being heavy-handed, effectively combining its message with suspense and well-choreographed action. As the protagonist works her way up the criminal organization, the movie delivers small character moments alongside its bursts of violence.
Director Steven Soderbergh was one of the first to see action-hero potential in former MMA fighter Gina Carano, casting her as a black-ops agent who’s been targeted for elimination by her superiors. Soderbergh showcases Carano’s combat abilities, including in an especially memorable hotel-room fight scene with Michael Fassbender, while also constructing a sophisticated, ambitious spy movie that’s more than just a parade of beatdowns.
Set in a neon-soaked world of assassins and crime syndicates, Gunpowder Milkshake stars Karen Gillan as Sam, an elite killer-for-hire who’s targeted for elimination after an assignment goes awry. Lena Headey, Carla Gugino, Lucy Liu, and Michelle Yeoh play veteran assassins with connections to Sam, and they’re all clearly having a great time in this stylized playground of an action movie.
Kate Beckinsale channels a bit of Jason Statham’s Chev Chelios from the Crank movies in this fun, fast-paced revenge thriller. Beckinsale’s Lindy has a disorder that gives her bursts of strength and instability whenever she gets angry, controlled only by administering electric shocks. She uses that violent rage, along with her entertainingly snarky attitude, to take down a criminal organization responsible for the death of her boyfriend.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays the title character in this slick Japan-set action movie about an assassin who’s been poisoned and has only 24 hours left to live. Winstead makes for a fierce yet vulnerable hero, and she’s easy to root for as she exacts vengeance on her killers, discovers the truth about her past, and unexpectedly bonds with the daughter of her last target.
French filmmaker Julien Leclerq makes lean, brutal B-movies that are also tough-minded character studies. He gives actress Olga Kurylenko a rare leading role as a French soldier who defies orders to seek retribution against a Russian gangster who raped and assaulted her sister. Sentinelle mixes gritty, close-quarters fight scenes with somber drama about a traumatized soldier who feels unable to return to a normal life.
Better known for his serious, issue-oriented dramas, filmmaker Steve McQueen takes a genre detour with this Chicago-set crime thriller. After their husbands are killed in a botched heist, the widows of a crew of robbers band together to pull off a heist of their own. Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, and Cynthia Erivo star as this powerful yet underestimated team, in a movie that combines thrills with social realism.
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Josh Bell is a freelance writer and movie/TV critic based in Las Vegas. He’s the former film editor of Las Vegas Weekly and the former TV comedies guide for About.com. He has written about movies, TV, and pop culture for Syfy Wire, Polygon, CBR, Inverse, Crooked Marquee, and more. With comedian Jason Harris, he co-hosts the podcast Awesome Movie Year.