The Best Female Butt-Kickers In Movies You've Never Seen

(Welcome to The Best Movies You've Never Seen, a series that takes a look at slightly more obscure, under-the-radar, or simply under-appreciated movies. In this edition: the best lead female action stars in movies you may have missed!)Wonder Woman hits the big screen this week, and I'm happy to report that it's quite good. It's also the first modern solo effort for a female superhero, and while that's fantastic news – albeit long overdue – it's far from the first female-led action picture. Women have been kicking butts onscreen for decades, and they've headlined plenty of terrific action movies along the way including Aliens, Kill Bill, and The Long Kiss Goodnight just to name a few. There's always room for more though, which is why it's so damn great when a Rita Vrataski, Imperator Furiosa, or Wonder Woman comes along.

For every well-known female performer who lands a role as a strong, action-capable character in a big-budget blockbuster-to-be, there are a typically a few who slip under the radar in smaller, lower profile films. They get less attention, but truth be told, these lesser-known action stars (female or male) in lower-budgeted movies have to work harder to be noticed and often deliver far more memorable action sequences as a result. The trick is getting people to see them... and that's where this week's column comes in. Keep reading for a look at six bone-crunching action movies with female leads (doing the bone crunching) that you've probably missed.


Jeeja Yanin in Chocolate (2008)

An autistic girl named Zen spends her days mimicking the martial arts moves she sees on TV, and when she grows up she puts her skills to work collecting debts from gangsters.

Highly skilled in Taekwondo and Muay Thai, Yanin shows blistering speed with her elbows, fists, knees, and feet, and she's not adverse to flipping and flying through the air to reach her target. The film features numerous fight scenes starting with Zen's impulsive defense of a bullied boy against some street thugs on up through serious gangsters and more advanced fighters. She's a calm presence, autistic "mannerisms" aside, and moves from utter stillness to lightning fast strikes without notice, but she's not beyond using props and furniture like a somewhat more serious Jackie Chan. There may be little to praise with the story itself, but it's guaranteed to be far from your mind while she's taking down foes onscreen.

Like a surprising number of action movies out of Thailand, there's an elephant in the room here, but unlike every other Tony Jaa film, the questionable pachyderm in Chocolate is of a more metaphorical nature. Zen's autism is played as a contributing factor in her fighting skills, and worse, the biggest threat she faces in the film comes from an equally skilled fighter with severe Tourette's. If you can get past those questionable plot points though, and I think the recent release of Ben Affleck's The Accountant suggests we can, then Yanin has some mesmerizing action chops to show you. This was her film debut, and while later films like Raging Phoenix and The Kick are worthwhile, Chocolate remains the best display of her skills.

Veronica Ngo in Clash (2009)

A woman is blackmailed into committing a handful of crimes if she ever wants to see her kidnapped daughter again.

Ngo plays the woman in question, and as leader of a small group of mercenaries she pulls together to complete the jobs, she gets the opportunity to prove herself on multiple occasions and in multiple ways. The film features car chases with guns blazing as well as more traditional feet on the ground gun fights, and she's front and center in all of it. Even better than all of that are the film's beautifully shot and choreographed fight scenes that reverberate with visible and audible impact. You can feel each blow, and while co-star Johnny Nguyen gets more fanciful with his high-flying kicks, Ngo is constantly in the mix with kicks, punches, and the scissor madness pictured above.

You don't see a lot of action movies coming out of Vietnam, and that's a damn shame judging by the few I've seen. Ngo is in two of them, Clash and the period piece The Rebel, and if you're not already familiar with her work these are the best places to start. It's worth getting to know her now as she'll soon be appearing in two big budget features – David Ayer's Bright and some science fiction movie called Star Wars: The Last Jedi – that hopefully earn her a bigger audience.

Gina Carano in Haywire (2011)

A government agent is betrayed by her own handlers and sets out to settle the score.

Okay fine, you've definitely heard of this one and may have even seen it, but dammit this is an underrated action gem. Carano and her mixed martial arts skills are a big reason why it's so damn good. Her fight scenes are tangible affairs, featuring a mix of powerful hits and fierce grappling moves, and they're made even better by the faces on the receiving end. There are some nameless thugs in the mix, but she also pounds the tar out of Channing Tatum, Michael Fassbender, Ewan McGregor, and more in smartly-crafted slug-fests. The lack of a score during the sequences keeps the focus on the fighting, where it belongs.

As Steven Soderbergh joints go this is definitely lesser tier, but that's like saying one pizza isn't as good as the next when it's still a delicious pizza. In this case, it's a pizza with some rough acting from its lead and an extremely messy script, but still... it's a pizza. I feel like this metaphor has gotten away from me, so I'll reel it in by saying if you've avoided Haywire because you've heard bad things then I'm giving you permission to ignore that advice. It's a quick, action-packed ride featuring a talented female fighter beating the bejeezus out of well-known actors, and you're going to enjoy it.


Gianna Jun in Assassination (2015)

Members of the Korean resistance plan a strike against the occupying Japanese and traitors working against their own people.

Like the recent The Age of Shadows, this South Korean film is a beautifully crafted period action piece with fantastic production design and memorable choreography. Jun is one of a trio of leads and plays the sniper of the group, but while sharpshooting is her main contribution, her skills extend to more close quarters gun play as well. We see her taking out the enemy from afar through the scope of her rifle and in more hectic situations with handguns, all of it leading up to a glorious sequence that turns a wedding into a free fire bloodbath of rebels, oppressors, and unlucky guests.

Jun will always be My Sassy Girl for some viewers, but the latter half of her career has proven more interesting with action-oriented roles in the likes of Blood: The Last Vampire, The Berlin File, and The Thieves. She doesn't get into the fisticuffs here that marked some of those other films, but her action chops are every bit on display, whether she's fighting on a rooftop or the roof of a moving truck.

Olga Kurylenko in Momentum (2015)

A high-tech thief is drawn into a conspiracy involving murder, deception, and treason at the highest levels.

I will go to my grave defending Quantum of Solace as the second best Daniel Craig/James Bond film (of the four currently produced), but I swear my love for the film and for Kurylenko's atypical Bond girl isn't influencing this film's inclusion here. Instead, this is just a fun, well-crafted action movie that sees Kurylenko's thief put through her paces in an effort to both survive and get to the bottom of what's happening. She gets to dabble in gunfights and car chases, but she shines during a handful of fight sequences revealing the energetic and scrappy brawler within.

One of the highlights sees her squaring off against a brutal assassin in an otherwise peaceful suburban home, and it's a suspenseful sequence as well as an entertaining one thanks to the presence of a young child who she's trying to protect even as she's getting slammed into walls. Kurylenko's no stranger to action, having starred in the first Hitman film as well as the second best Daniel Craig/James Bond film, but it's here where she really gets to shine as a far more active participant. The film almost sets up a sequel, and while we'll never get to see it I'd be first in line if it ever actually came to fruition.

nowhere girl

Nana Seino in Nowhere Girl (2015)

A teenager with a mysterious past walks the halls of an art school until it comes time to fight.

This Japanese feature is probably the least known of the six on this list and definitely the hardest to find, but action junkies with healthy reserves of patience will want to seek it out. It's a short movie, but the first hour or so is pure, dreamy calmness. Some chatty classmates and a handful of earthquakes break our hero's trance, but it's not until the final fifteen minutes that the film bursts into bloody action perfection. It's here where Seino excels as she unleashes hell on dozens of soldiers through martial arts, blade work, and gun play. She high kicks and punches her way through the men when she's not slashing their Achilles tendons or filling them full of lead.

Seino's probably best known (or only known) stateside for her supporting role in Sion Sono's wonderfully odd Tokyo Tribe, where she also went to town on some bad guys with her formidable skills. My guess is even those who have started watching Nowhere Girl gave up well before the final, explosive act. It's tough to fault someone for doing that, but if you get the chance to give the film another try, I highly recommend it. Maybe that means you fast forward to the good stuff, that's your call, and I'm not going to judge, but either way you'll want to watch what Seino does in this film's final fifteen minutes.