Action movies have been a Hollywood staple since the genre’s inception—but as influential and dominant action movies are at the box office, the vast majority of big-ticket blockbusters are directed by men. The disparity between male and female directors (in any genre) was so dominant, for so long, that it took until 2010 for a woman to even win best director at the Academy Awards—a sign that as far as we’ve come when it comes to gender equity in cinema, there’s still much further to go.
While the industry won’t change overnight, that doesn’t mean there aren’t still grade-A female-directed action films worth celebrating, so we’ve rounded up a list of five of the best action films out there directed by women .
DEBS (2004) – Angela Robinson
Though certainly less prolific than the rest of the films on this list, writer-director Angela Robinson’s 2004 action-comedy DEBS was a box office flop that found a (much deserved) second wind as a cult classic after its initial theatrical run. The film follows a group of schoolgirls (Devon Aoki, Meagan Good, Jill Ritchie, and Sara Foster) who are recruited by a secret military training organization (the titular “DEBS”, which stands for Discipline, Energy, Beauty, and Strength) after scoring highly on a secret component of the SAT which looks for prospective secret agents. Together, the four young women band together to use their extraordinary abilities to take down international criminal Lucy Diamond (Jordana Brewster).
From the character names to the concept to the costume designs, there’s a charming pulpiness to DEBS that makes it both an iconic cult film as well as an off-putting borderline exploitation flick for audiences that aren’t willing to look beyond initial appearances. Despite its poor critical reception and commercial failure, though, DEBS is an unapologetically campy film with a clear sense of self and a distinct personality that makes it stand out from the slog of espionage action movies in the early 2000s. Though audiences looking for slick, high-budget action sequences will leave disappointed, anyone in search of a good time (and a new movie night staple) should give DEBS a chance.
The Old Guard (2020) – Gina Prince-Blythewood
A much more glossy, modern entry on the list is Gina Prince-Blythewood’s surprise breakout hit The Old Guard, which premiered on Netflix in 2020. Based on the Greg Rucka comic book series of the same name, the film follows a group of immortal warriors: Nicky (Luca Marinelli), Joe (Marwan Kenzari), and Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), who travel the world saving lives on missions led by the reclusive and haunted Andy (Charlize Theron). When the quartet realize a new immortal, Nile (Kiki Layne) is out there, their quest to find her quickly goes awry when a malicious tech entrepreneur (Harry Telling) discovers their abilities and seeks to take advantage of them for his own gain.
The Old Guard‘s action sequences—thanks to the plot contrivance of having a gaggle of heroes that can walk away from virtually any injury—are as slick as they are brutal. And the bloody, violent, and faced-paced scenes help bring the immortals’ gritty world to life. What’s truly special about the film, though, is the way Prince-Blythewood is able to offset such unflinching action with a set of well-fleshed out characters, thanks to a strong script and the stacked cast assembled. The Old Guard was also the first action film to prominently feature a pair of gay superheroes—Nicky and Joe—whose chemistry and tender romance struck a chord with many a fan online. From its impressive ensemble cast to the blood-soaked action sequences, The Old Guard is easily one of Netflix’s best original action films to date, and a must-watch for those on the hunt for queer representation in a genre chock full of heteronormative machismo.
Point Break (1991) – Kathryn Bigelow
So 90s it almost hurts, it’s virtually impossible to make a list of female-directed action movies without mentioning Kathryn Bigelow’s iconic, perpetually-meme’d surfer heist film, Point Break. Starring Patrick Swayze and Keanu Reeves, Point Break follows FBI agent Johnny Utah (Reeves) as he attempts to infiltrate the ranks of a notorious gang of bank robbers who moonlight as hardcore thrill-seeking surfers. Initially, Utah is only interested in infiltrating the gang to help put them behind bars, but he quickly forms an, ahem, close bond with their leader Bodhi (Swayze) and soon Johnny becomes wrapped up in a messy, testosterone-fueled game of cat and mouse.
Between the surfing stunts, the now-famous Presidential masks, and the utter 90s-ness of it all, Point Break is a classic for a reason: Bigelow’s fast-paced direction and the stunt sequences (courtesy of second unit director/stunt coordinator Glenn Wilder) work in perfect harmony to create a heist film that’s equal parts intense and borderline goofy. Though it admittedly isn’t the most grounded or gritty of action films, Point Break will likely always remain in the cultural conversation thanks to the intensity of the Johnny/Bodhi relationship, and the pure guilty pleasure enjoyment of watching surfers in US President masks robbing banks.
Birds Of Prey (2020) – Cathy Yan
Yet another 2020-released entry (and the only DC or Marvel film on our list), is Cathy Yan’s Birds of Prey (and the fantastic emancipation of one Harley Quinn). The rip-ride of a superhero action flick stars Margot Robbie, who reprized her role as Harley Quinn (one of the few brights spots of 2016’s Suicide Squad). Following a sour offscreen breakup with the Joker, Birds of Prey sees Harley Quinn attempt to strike out on her own and figure out what her life is like outside the clutches of the Joker. Things quickly devolve into chaos, though, when she ends up looking after a young pickpocket (Ella Jay Basco) who’s unwittingly stolen a diamond from crime boss Black Mask (Ewan McGregor). Together with an unlikely group of ass-kickers including Black Canary, Huntress, and Renee Montoya, Harley fights to take down Black Mask and secure her reputation as a force to be reckoned with in Gotham—with or without the Joker.
Birds of Prey takes Harley Quinn’s colorful, foul-mouthed nature to heart and crafts an identity for itself that’s similarly unpredictable and high-energy. From the bombastic set pieces set at carnivals to car chases on roller skates, Birds of Prey‘s creative approach to fight sequences makes it a refreshing change of pace both for DC superhero films and action movies as a whole. With Margot Robbie’s pitch-perfect performance as Harley at the center of it all, Birds of Prey is without question one of DC’s strongest films, and just about the most fun an action movie can get.
The Matrix Franchise (1999-2021) – The Wachowkis
Of course, when it comes to female-directed action movies, there’s virtually nothing else that could (or should) take the top spot beside The Matrix (and its many subsequent sequels) written and directed by sisters Lilly and Lana Wachowski. Between coining the ‘red pill blue pill’ term (a phrase now deeply engrained in pop culture) to pulling off some of the most memorable action sequences in film history, The Matrix franchise is a sci-fi action thriller masterpiece that combines 90s and 2000s style sensibilities with cutting edge filmmaking techniques and an airtight allegorical script to create a masterpiece that transcends the conventions of action films, landing squarely among the ranks of the best films ever made, period.
Starring Keanu Reeves, The Matrix follows mild-mannered Neo, whose world is turned upside down when the elusive Morpheus (Lawrence Fishburn) offers him the opportunity to expand his mind and answer all his questions. Seeking answers, and enamored with the beautiful and mysterious Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss), Neo takes the red pill and learns the starting truth about the world he thinks he lives in—kicking off a journey of saving reality and uncovering the secrets of the Matrix. Whether it’s the head-to-toe black leather costumes, the bullet-time fight sequences, or the disorienting cinematography, there’s an unmistakable identity to The Matrix that keeps viewers coming back again and again. Combined with Lana and Lilly’s more recent comments about the film’s meanings in relation to gender identity and self expression, The Matrix remains more potent than ever, and a testament to the brilliance women can produce behind the camera.
(featured images via Netflix, Samuel Goldwyn Films, and Warner Bros.)
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