One of the great collective joys of the movies is watching some good old-fashioned ass-kicking, and there is no greater adrenaline rush than when that ass-kicking comes from a no-nonsense woman. We rarely get a chance to see strong women depicted in film, but here are ten ass-kicking females who helped define and redefine what it means to be a hero in cinema.
10. Vienna in Johnny Guitar
Vienna started it all. Nicholas Ray’s 1954 oddball Western, Johnny Guitar, is a veritable smorgasbord of shifting gender identities — in fact, the film essentially reverses all gender roles entirely. The legendary Joan Crawford’s Vienna is the ultimate butch bitch, an entrepreneur who will protect her empire through any means necessary. Vienna is the alpha-female, a tough-talking, gun-slinging ass-kicker with snarls to boot.
9. Jackie Brown in Jackie Brown
Jackie Brown is not quite the same Pam Grier we saw in early blaxploitation movies like Foxy Brown and Coffy. She’s older, wiser, and instead of using guns and fists to foil her enemies, she uses her mind. Of all Quentin Tarantino’s viciously strong female characters (and there are a myriad… see the remainder of this list), Jackie is perhaps his strongest, albeit in an unconventional sense. She kicks ass with her brain, which is clearly operating at five times the speed of everyone else in the movie. She plays everyone for a fool and walks away with both the money and the man.
8. Jane Smith in Mr. and Mrs. Smith
Angelina Jolie is the standby actress for most ass-kicking female roles these days, but Mrs. Smith is the toughest of them all. Skilled, alert, and absolutely lethal, she may still love her husband, but that doesn’t mean she’s not prepared to kill him. It doesn’t matter how many times you kick her when she’s down — she’ll inevitably raise her leg and kick you in the balls. Game over.
7. Thelma and Louise in Thelma & Louise
Thelma and Louise’s (Geena Davis, Susan Sarandon) decision to go on a road trip is a middle-finger to slave-driving patriarchy, but they don’t initially intend for the trip to turn into a cross-country ass-kicking spree. No, the trip just brings it out in them — they are enlightened, awakened, transformed from sassy Southern belles to merciless, independent, tough-ass women. During the course of their journey, the two women kill a man, go on the lam, steal what they need, and blow up a sixteen-wheeler — and all that comes before their final act of strength, the ultimate rejection of a patriarchal society and its crippling norms.
6. Coffy in Coffy
If you thought Travis Bickle gave pimps a hard time, just wait till you get a load of Coffy (Grier). Nothing gets in her way — she is the godmother of all ass-kicking vigilante females. Pimps? Dead. Drug dealers? Blown away. Mob bosses? They don’t stand a chance. Coffy is a blaxploitation superhero, and the character that spawned Pam Grier’s career as an ass-kicking superstar in movies like Foxy Brown, Sheba, Baby, Friday Foster, and eventually Jackie Brown. Coffy is the female equivalent of Shaft, only with less scruples and even more sex appeal.
5. Ellen Ripley in the Alien series
Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) is the ultimate alien fighter. She is the poster child for modern ass-kicking females in the cinema… but she doesn’t start out that way. She is a hero, sure, but a hero who runs scared — in panties, no less. It takes about five hours and two movies to reach the pinnacle moment of Ripley’s iconic ass-kicking, but when it comes, it is well worth the wait. ‘Get away from her, you bitch!’ Yes, I will.
4. Hayley Stark in Hard Candy
Hayley Stark (Ellen Page) probably won’t beat anyone in a fist fight. But in psychological warfare, she is the ultimate ass-kicking female. She is the unbeatable, indestructible vanquishing force of Hard Candy, a heroine who thinks like a villain. Hayley may dress like Little Red Riding Hood, but she is actually the craftiest vigilante since Charles Bronson. Besides, anyone who can make a grown man believe she is slicing his man parts off holds untold power and should be justly feared.
3. The Bride in Kill Bill
The Bride (Uma Thurman) is a victim, make no mistake. But once victimized, she abandons all shreds of vulnerability and begins annihilating her foes, one by one, without mercy or remorse. The Deadly Viper Assassination Squad and the Crazy 88 are no match for this sole heroine, this woman on the ultimate mission. Quentin Tarantino is the crowned king of ass-kicking heroines, and The Bride is the most literal embodiment of the filmmaker’s simultaneous love and fear of the Kick-Ass Woman.
2. Yu Shu Lien and Jen Yu in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) and Jen Yu (Zhang Ziyi) kick ass with beauty and grace. Their power is natural and arises from within. The martial arts epic has long been one of the most consistent proponents of the Strong Female, and in Ang Lee’s masterpiece of the form the females take center stage, utilizing their craft in a stunning synthesis of inner peace and outward thunder. Whether they are leaping across rooftops, wielding deadly swords, or gliding through a bamboo forest, these women practice ass-kicking as an art, and their body of work is effortless, soul-stirring, and magical.
1. The Girl Gang in Death Proof
‘I’m gonna bust a nut up in this bitch!’ shouts Kim (Tracy Thoms), a tough-ass woman in army camouflage, as she continually rams into alpha male Stuntman Mike’s muscle car — from behind, no less. It is the ultimate metaphor in the ultimate ass-kicking female movie. The gang of three fierce beauties (Rosario Dawson, Zoe Bell, and Thoms) are stalked and chased by the vicious killer… until they decide enough is enough and turn the tables on their hunter. What follows is one of the most adrenaline-pumping chase sequences ever filmed, in which the girls turn Stuntman Mike into their plaything, and they don’t stop until they’ve had their fill. Is Death Proof Tarantino’s best? No, but it is the most visceral, dominant, gleefully violent display of female ass-kicking the cinema has ever seen.