wonder woman

(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.

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