Uma Thurman in Kill Bill

The 7+ Actresses Best at Playing Ass-Kicking Characters

Female action heroes. We need more of ’em.

Jaw-breaking uppercuts. Rib-cracking roundhouse kicks. Ear-piercing explosions. Fear-striking struts. Quick-tongued comebacks and snappy one-liners. Regarding high-octane action movies, the men of Tinseltown make up the majority of the cinematic space. Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone and Tom Cruise and Vin Diesel and Dwayne Jonson and Jatham Statham and Jackie Chan and Daniel Craig and Liam Neeson and Chuck Norris and Keanu Reeves and Matt Damon and Wark Wahlberg…you get the idea. It’s a never-ending list of testosterone-driven macho men with a penchant and proclivity for no-hold-barred brawls. That being said, a handful of women take on such fisticuff-leaning characters with fervor and ferocity. 

So, let’s dive into actresses who take on combat-ready courageous characters with cutthroat conviction. The female actors who portray those willing to challenge Zoro in a sword fight. The heroines and antiheroines who will set a corrupt corporation ablaze while walking away with a couple of bruises, a tear in their jeans, and a blood-stained t-shirt. 

Note: The primary list will highlight actresses whose action-hero legacies exist beyond a singular movie or film franchise.

Angelina Jolie 

From the fearless and resourceful Lara Croft — who calculates just as fast as she combats — to the lethal, adaptable, and charismatic Jane Smith, Jolie has portrayed a handful of characters adept in hand-to-hand combat and loaded with an arsenal full of weaponry —crossbows, pistols, shotguns, combat knives, grenades, and more  —that she wields with acumen. She has also played the likes of skilled and enigmatic spy Evelyn Salt, the maternal and protective Mistress of Evil Maleficent, the cool and calm marksman Fox in Wanted, and voiced the fan-favorite Tigris in Kung-Fu Panda

Jolie’s heroes often boast an unwavering degree of confidence and an air of nonchalance. They are proud and polished. Relentless and driven. They also tend to be a bit mysterious — as to coincide with her dark features and angular bone structure. At the end of the day, her high-octane characters match her aesthetic intensity. 

Jodie Foster 

Who could forget Jodie Foster in Flightplan? Driven by an unwavering maternal instinct and sharp yet unstable mind, she portrays a grieving widow whose daughter disappears on a plane. With those around her determined to make her think she is losing her mind, she must combat both intellectual manipulation and physical threats. She exquisitely captures the balance between vulnerability and resiliency. Doubt and determination. Fear and ferocity. From using a fire extinguisher as an improvised weapon and contorting her body to climb into tiny spaces to employing a calculative and resourceful approach to investigation, she uncovers the mystery at the center via mental and physical superiority over the antagonists. She played a badass mother a few years prior in Panic Room, combining protective tendencies and intuition with top-notch problem-solving skills. 

Foster notably took home the Oscar for her take on Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs. She deftly conveyed the doubts and insecurities of an FBI trainee with a difficult childhood as well as the grown, strong-footed, and hyper-fixated disposition of a woman undaunted. 

Foster’s badass heroines tend to be a mix of vulnerable and courageous. Broken yet brazen. She’s best when taking on a fighter who is not driven by ego or some clandestine assignment but by personal and emotionally stirring catalysts. She’s unparalleled when the head must overcome the heart to get the job done. 

Milla Jovovich 

If talking about Milla Jovovich’s badassery, we must start with her take on Alice in the Resident Evil franchise. Alice is a former security operative who becomes a relentless warrior fighting against hordes of zombies. She is beyond resilient — jumping back from intense physical altercations with an uncanny and unbridled degree of strength. She will not rest until all the undead are gone. 

She is independent and skilled in hand-to-hand combat, as are many action heroes, but her willingness to operate in the gray moral zone works in her favor, as she defies the traditional hero stereotype akin to a Marvel or DC character. Her motivations also shift throughout the franchise’s many installments. From what starts as a quest for identity and revenge becomes a drive to protect survivors and uncover the truth about a global pandemic. 

Outside Alice, Jovovich has also portrayed the martial artist Leeloo in The Fifth Element, the needs-no-introduction Joan of Arc during the Hundred Years War in The Messenger: The Joan of Arc Story, and the genetically-enhanced warrior Ultraviolet.  Her heroes often boast complex motivations that evolve over time and an assertive attitude that is unwavering in the face of powerful adversaries. 

Uma Thurman 

“It’s mercy, compassion, and forgiveness I lack. Not rationality,” Uma Thurman says as The Bride in Kill Bill: Vol 1. The Bride, or Beatrix Kiddo, is easily Thurman’s best-known ass-kicking character, as she slays her various opponents with a Samurai sword that measures 37⅞”. And just as she self-describes, she is a ruthless assassin lacking a single shred of empathy. Those around her continue to underestimate her, as she takes them down in a ritualistic fashion that is strategic and unclouded by emotional influences. Remorseless and callous. Left for dead on her wedding day by Bill and the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad, no word better describes her murderous vendetta than vengeful. She is an adaptable Martial Arts expert boasting lightning-fast reflexes — almost beyond human in nature — and unconventional tactics like the Five-Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique and swordplay with a broken blade. 

Thurman also played the seductive and fiery, manipulative and cunning Poison Ivy in the campy splendor Batman Returns. Here, she is psychologically deceptive, exploiting the male ego to gain an upper hand.

She also voiced Emma Peel in the ‘90s animated series The Avengers, portrayed the complex supporting character The Baroness in Gattaca, and, of course, mesmerized viewers with the captivating and confident Mia Wallace in Pulp Fiction. 

Michelle Yeoh 

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Tomorrow Never Dies. The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor. The Long Kiss Goodnight. Reign of Assassins. Everything Everywhere All at Once. From a warrior with expertise in Wudang-style Martial Arts to a secret agent who partners with James Bond, an immortal sorceress, and an elite assassin, Yeoh has portrayed the gamut of tough, skilled, and strategic heroes and villains. 

Whether fighting for good or evil, Yeoh’s characters always boast combat chops. Her cinematic portfolio is filled to the brim with hand-to-hand combat experts, as well as those beyond proficient with weaponry (or even magical powers). This list would not be complete without the woman who has been kicking ass on the big screen for decades and ultimately took the Oscar for the high-octane-fueled Everything Everywhere All at Once. 

Charlize Theron 

If there’s any actress out there who isn’t afraid to get their hands a little dirty, their hair shrouded in dirt and shrapnel, their knees covered in bruises and scars, their lips inflamed and dripping with blood, it’s Charlize Theron.

From the intense physicality required of her to play Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road and Lorraine Broughton in Atomic Blonde to the acrobatic acumen of Aeon Flux and the leadership qualities of Andy in The Old Guard, Theron’s badasses are often no-nonsense warriors who, though skilled in combat, take a few hits and wind up on their ass every now and again. 

Theron is also adept at playing ass-kickers who can assemble and lead a group of warriors. She has that shoulders-back disposition and impending stature — standing at 5’10” tall — that effortlessly demands respect and obedience. She is a formidable presence in the action space, nimbly balancing emotionally-wrought climaxes with seemingly never-ending fight sequences. 

Halle Berry 

Mess with Ororo Munroe and face the storm…literally. Halle Berry portrayed the X-Men character Storm in four different X-Men installments and always maintained a fiercely protective nature. She is selfless and driven to protect those who cannot defend themselves. Yet, she is also intelligent and forward-thinking enough to know when a fight calls for conversation rather than combat. She is an empathetic and strong leader who, rather than many ass-kickers on this list, is not heartless nor vengeful, but driven to fight her by compassion and desire for peace between mankind and mutantkind. 

Halle Berry also portrayed Patience Phillips in the critically condemned yet now campy cult classic Catwoman. In this film, she is rebellious and resourceful, seductive as a strategy, independent, and morally gray. Clad in tight black leather and adorned with diamond nails, she portrayed the acrobatic vigilante with both physical prowess and justice-seeking depth…even if some lines are a bit, well, over the top and theatrical. 

Berry also portrayed skilled NSA agent Jinx Johnson in Die Another Day, hacker Ginger Knowles in Swordfish, mother scorned Molly Woods in Kidnap, and historied assassin Sofia in John Wick: Chapter 3. 

Honorable Mentions: 

  • Sigourney Weaver: Ellen Ripley in Alien, Dr. Grace Augustine in the Avatar films, and Joan Leaven in Cube. 
  • Scarlett Johansson: Black Widow in the Avengers franchise, Lucy in Lucy, and Major Motoko Kusanagi in Ghost in the Shell. 
  • Jennifer Lopez: Detective Harlee Santos in Shades of Blue, Karen Sisko in Out of Sight, Slim Hiller in Enough, Charlie in Money Train, Darcy in Shotgun Wedding, and Terri Flores in Anaconda. 
  • Kate Beckinsale: Selene in the Underworld franchise, Anne Valerious in Van Helsing, and Celine in Total Recall. 
  • Linda Hamilton: Sarah Connor in the Terminator films. 
  • Carrie-Anne Moss: Trinity in The Matrix series. 
  • Jennifer Lawrence: Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games series, Mystique in X-Men: First Class, Days of Future Past, Apocalypse, and Dark Phoenix. 
  • Zoe Saldana: Gamora in the Guardians of the Galaxy series and Neytiri in Avatar films.