When Doug Liman’s Edge of Tomorrow kicks into high gear, it’s not because of the star wattage of Mr. Tom Cruise finally reaches full brightness. It’s because Cruise’s oft-murdered soldier must fight and learn from Sgt. Rita Rose Vratask, played with no-bull skepticism and physical oomph by Emily Blunt. She’s the better soldier by a mile but by the end of the movie, she will have thanked Cruise’s character for teaching her one thing or two and everyone claps or something.
This is a slight twist on an ancient structure henceforth to be known as the Butch Cassidy Gambit, in which a wise, older man teaches and learns alongside a smart, younger whippersnapper who is often characterized as a lunatic for drinking green tea or not owning a truck. Very rarely has this partnership allowed the younger character to have the upper hand and be a woman in film. Blunt is what makes Edge of Tomorrow work but Cruise is inarguably the star of the show and the centerpiece of the film as written in the script. Outside of its impressive technical displays, Blunt is the best reason to see the movie but Cruise is who you will be watching for the most part.
It’s rare to have action films that allow the woman to be the righteous aggressor as well as the main protagonist of the narrative. Linda Hamilton is a force of nature in both of the Terminator movies, but Arnold is who James Cameron’s camera is glued to and gravitates towards constantly. Trinity is crucial to the storyline of the first Matrix, but Neo is the Unabashed Hero of the World. And when you do have women in the lead roles, such as with Underworld or Resident Evil, the characters are usually diluted down to cynicism, militaristic expertise, loneliness, and really ugly coats.
That being said, there are a handful of action movies that take a female ass-kicker as their main focus and actually build her in the script as a full-fledged character, not just a walking onslaught with a name. They do not come out often but when they do they own, so I thought it’d be worth it to highlight a few great movies where the women are front and center and usually sending some dude flying in the air, testicles first.