The list of the 10 best female martial arts movies would have been dominated by Hong Kong films and obscure kung-fu movies during most of the 20th century. Only in the new millennium have actresses regularl taken starring roles in big-budget action films. All of these films feature spectacular-looking women in spectacular martial-arts fight scenes.
“La Femme Nikita.” Scary thief and killer Anne Parillaud is transformed into a sexy government assassin in this 1990 French action classic. Luc Besson’s iconic anti-heroine inspired an American remake with Bridget Fonda and two TV series. Nikita’s deadly training includes plenty of hand-to-hand combat.
“Tomorrow Never Dies.” 1997’s James Bond entry paired Pierce Brosnan with Chinese secret agent Wai Lin, played by Michelle Yeoh. Yeoh was already a famous Hong Kong action star who performed her own stunts, much like her occasional co-star Jackie Chan. Overcautious producers didn’t let Yeoh perform dangerous stunts in “Tomorrow,” but she did serve as her own fight double.
“The Matrix.” In the Matrix, anyone can master martial arts by simply downloading the right computer files. Carrie-Anne Moss fights alongside Keanu Reeves’ Neo in the 1999 techno-thriller and its 2003 sequels. The character also has her own solo action adventure in the “Animatrix” video collection.
“Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon.” China’s “wuxia” martial-arts films were famous for wire-work that gave combatants the illusion of flight. Ang Lee created the best wuxia ever with this Oscar-nominated 2000 epic, based on a famous Chinese novel. Action-movie vet Michelle Yeoh returned, joined by Chow Yun-Fat and young wuxia star Zhang Ziyi in a star-making turn.
“Resident Evil.” Like Matt Damon in “The Bourne Identity,” Milla Jovovich wakes up in 2002’s “Evil” with no memory, but the ability to fight her way out of any situation. The difference: there’s a zombie apocalypse going on outside. Milla’s Alice has bee fighting her way out of it ever since, in sequels released in ’04, ’07 and ’10.
“Hero.” If any martial arts film can top “Crouching Tiger” for the sheer poetry of its beautiful images, this is the one. Legendary Chinese director Zhang Yimou created his own wuxia epic in 2002, based on a legend of China’s origins. Maggie Cheung and Zhang Ziyi are among the warriors planning to assassinate China’s first emperor.
“Underworld.” In 2003’s action-horror hybrid, vampires battle werewolves with modern technology. Kate Beckinsale as Selene combines the vampire powers of Wesley Snipes’ “Blade” with the martial-arts skills of “The Matrix’s” Trinity. She fought on in 2006’s sequel “Underworld: Evolution”; another film is reportedly in the works.
“Kill Bill.” Uma Thurman’s bloody Bride character studied martial arts under a stern Chinese master, like all the members of her assassination squad. A good thing, too, because she puts those skills to use when she sets out for revenge against her former squadmates. Quentin Tarantino’s 2003-2004 two-part epic boasts several show-stopping fight scenes, including the opening battle with Vivica A. Fox.
“Watchmen.” The alternative Earth of “Watchmen” has no shortage of super-powered beings. Second-generation superhero Malin Akerman learned gymnastics and martial arts at an early age, as the daughter of the original Silk Spectre. Even after years in retirement, she still has the skills, as the movie’s high-octane fight scenes demonstrate.
“Iron Man 2.” Sexy secretary/spy Scarlett Johannson also has to hold her own against super-powered folk like Robert Downey Jr.’ Iron Man. In an extended fight sequence, she proves she can take down a dozen thugs without breaking a sweat. She’ll need those skills if she turns up in the “Avengers” series of super-films.