Here is a little tidbit of information that is going to come as a surprise to just about no one, but some of the best action movies of all time have been directed by trailblazing female filmmakers who have proven that the genre isn’t reserved solely for their male counterparts. Over the years, Academy Award winners like Kathryn Bigelow have come in and released a few of the most transformative action flicks, like Point Break, that we’re still talking about 30-plus years later. But, she’s not alone…
In the past, we’ve talked about all the great horror movies from female directors, as well as pointed out some of the best superhero movies told from the female perspective, and so now feels like a great time to point out a dozen badass action movies by female directors and what makes each so great.
Point Break (Kathryn Bigelow)
Although Kathryn Bigelow’s 1991 action thriller, Point Break, starring Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze wasn’t the biggest hit with audiences or critics upon its release (it opened just one week after her then-husband James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day came out), it has since earned a reputation as being one of the best action movies of the early 1990s, and perhaps of all time.
The film centers around Reeves’ FBI Agent Johnny Utah, as he goes undercover to bring down Bodhi (Swayze), the leader of a group of surfers who fund their lifestyles by committing over-the-top bank heists while dressed up like former U.S. presidents. With thrilling heist scenes, daring skydiving sequences, and one of the all-time great movie villains, there’s a lot to love with this cult classic.
Wonder Woman (Patty Jenkins)
A few years after leaving the production of Thor: The Dark World, Patty Jenkins took her talents to the DCEU with the 2017 smash hit, Wonder Woman, a movie that not only made the Monster director one of the most sought after names in Hollywood, but helped take the growing cinematic universe to the next level.
Wonder Woman is nothing short of a comic book movie masterpiece, with exquisite action set pieces (especially the epic “No Man’s Land” sequence), a rich and detailed story, and an outstanding performance by Gal Gadot, who first took on the role of Diana Prince one year earlier in Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice.
The Old Guard (Gina Prince-Bythewood)
Director Gina Prince-Bythewood and her 2020 Netflix original, The Old Guard, made great strides in Hollywood, specifically when it came to the representation of the LGBTQ+ community in an action movie. This, combined with Prince-Bythewood’s unique take on the genre and the source material, created a hellacious and thrilling action spectacle that did a lot while never feeling overstuffed or unnecessary.
In case you aren’t familiar, The Old Guard centers on a group of centuries-old warriors who all have amazing regenerative healing abilities that allow them to essentially come back from the dead over and over again. After fighting together for nearly a millennium, the group finds themselves the target of a mysterious party, while at the same time taking in a new member to the family.
The Matrix (The Wachowskis)
The landscape of action movies was forever changed in 1999 when The Wachowskis released the groundbreaking and mind-bending box office smash hit, The Matrix. With the movie, and the directors’, blend of heavy philosophical questions about truth, freedom, and identity, it’s easy to see why it’s still held in such high regard more than 20 years after its release.
On the surface, The Matrix is about one man — Neo (Keanu Reeves) — saving humanity from being enslaved by machines and used as a power source, but the more you peel back at that onion’s layers you find all kinds of statements and questions that turn it into anything but a straight-forward, run-of-the-mill action flick.
Birds of Prey (Cathy Yan)
It is easy to feel bad for Cathy Yan’s female-centric comic book movie, Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn), considering the global theater market came crashing down just a few weeks following its February 2020 release, but don’t let this take anything away from the criminally outrageous and fun action movie it is. Plain and simple, this movie rocks!
In the aftermath of Harley Quinn’s (Margot Robbie) breakup with the Joker, the Suicide Squad member finds herself with a big old target on her head, as just about every big bad (and just about anyone she hurt over the years) comes looking for revenge, including Black Mask (Ewan McGregor). But, don’t count her out, as Harley has some friends of her own; some very badass friends with equally great backstories.
Tank Girl (Rachel Talalay)
If you are a fan of the Mad Max movies, the punk rock mentality, and a heavy dose of feminist themes, then Rachel Talalay’s 1995 sci-fi cult classic, Tank Girl, is worth checking out. This movie is absolutely and undeniably bonkers, but this is a good thing, a very good thing. Set in 2033 where most of the planet’s fresh water is controlled by an evil corporation, Rebecca Buck, a.k.a. Tank Girl (Lori Petty), rises to the occasion to save her friends and humanity in whole fell swoop.
There’s just so much to love here, including Petty’s take on the underdog comic book character, the insane action sequences, outstanding soundtrack, and those human-kangaroo hybrids (your eyes aren’t deceiving you). But overall, it’s a fun, silly movie that isn’t afraid to tackle some big topics.
Punisher: War Zone (Lexi Alexander)
Not to be confused with the Thomas Jane-led The Punisher that came out a few years earlier, Lexi Alexander’s 2008 bonkers and very R-rated comic book movie, Punisher: War Zone, is an absurdly fun and ridiculous movie. Is a great movie? No, not really. Is it a blast? You bet!
The movie centers on Frank Castle (Ray Stevenson) as he tries to fight off the legions of criminals, goons, and psychopaths hired by Jigsaw (Dominic West) to take down the Punisher after he left the crime boss hideously disfigured. But, don’t worry about the story, because the action sells the movie, especially the parkour scene where the Punisher makes a guy explode mid-flip.
Blue Steel (Kathryn Bigelow)
A little more than a year before Kathryn Bigelow released Point Break, the future Oscar winner came out with an equally as impressive crime action thriller called Blue Steel, which happens to be one of the best Jamie Lee Curtis movies. The drama in this one picks up after rookie cop Megan Turner (Curtis) puts an end to one criminal, but inadvertently kicks off another reign of terror when a psychopath (Ron Silver) picks up the dead man’s gun.
Though more toned down (in scope, not in violence) than the movie that would come out a year later, Blue Steel isn’t for the faint of heart. The great cat-and-mouse game between cop and criminal is brilliant throughout the movie and adds a great deal of tension.
Speed Racer (The Wachowskis)
Despite being a box office bomb and not being well received by critics, The Wachowskis’ 2008 adaptation of the classic Japanese manga and anime series, Speed Racer, is a dazzling display of cinematic greatness. Sure, an appreciation (or obsession) with the intellectual property helps in this regard, but it’s never too late to give it a second chance.
The movie looks and feels just like the old animated series and features multiple aspects, including those outrageously treacherous races with danger around every corner, the identity of Racer X (Matthew Fox), and so much corporate greed, that make you think you’re watching an HBO drama.
The Peacemaker (Mimi Leder)
Mimi Leder’s 1997 political action thriller, The Peacemaker (no, not the 2022 HBO Max show starring John Cena), is one of those movies that isn’t necessarily the best the genre has to offer, but is fun and engaging enough that you’ll be glad you watched it. When a train containing nuclear weapons vanishes after a wreck in Russia, nuclear specialist Dr. Julia Kelly (Nicole Kidman) and U.S. Army Ranger Thomas Devoe (George Clooney) attempt to find the missing weapons, which is easier said than done.
The pairing of Kidman and Clooney works really well throughout The Peacemaker and adds another level of drama and contention as the two characters, who are polar opposites, learn to work together. Bickering, banter, and plenty of explosions are found throughout.
Eternals (Chloé Zhao)
Chloé Zhao became the second female filmmaker (the first being Kathryn Bigelow) to take home an Academy Award for Best Director with her 2020 sensation, Nomadland, and immediately followed it up with one of the most ambitious entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe yet. That movie, Eternals, introduced audiences to some of the MCU’s most interesting and powerful heroes thus far.
Although not everyone’s favorite Marvel movie, there’s a case for Eternals being the most beautiful entry in the saga over the years, and that’s mostly because of Zhao’s eye for great shots and insistence on shooting on location whenever possible. When Zhao said she was from the "Terrence Malick school of filmmaking," she really meant it with this one.
Aeon Flux (Karyn Kusama)
A little more than a decade-and-a-half before she directed the pilot episode of the popular drama series, Yellowjackets, Karyn Kusama helmed the 2005 live-action adaptation of the MTV animated series, Aeon Flux, with Charlize Theron taking on the role of the titular heroine. Set 400 years after a deadly pathogen wiped out most of life on Earth, the movie features some flashy action and multiple plot twists before Aeon Flux can fulfill her mission.
Aeon Flux didn’t fare all too well at the box office, with critics, or fans of the original series, but Theron’s take on the iconic ‘90s character is fun enough to make it a fun cinematic experience.
Hopefully this all sheds light on some of the more forgotten movies on this list as well as the female directors who brought the stories to the big screen. And, with so many female filmmakers at the helm of some of the upcoming 2022 movies, expect this list to get longer in time.
Philip grew up in Louisiana (not New Orleans) before moving to St. Louis after graduating from Louisiana State University-Shreveport. When he's not writing about movies or television, Philip can be found being chased by his three kids, telling his dogs to stop yelling at the mailman, or yelling about professional wrestling to his wife. If the stars properly align, he will talk about For Love Of The Game being the best baseball movie of all time.
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