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10 woman-powered action flicks to watch after 'Black Widow'

From gritty heists to pulpy shoot 'em ups

Written by
Andy Kryza
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Black Widow is finally in theaters after a long delay, launching Marvel’s surprisingly female-focused next phase after the studio’s two-year absence from theaters. Serving as both the swan song for Scarlett Johansson’s titular super-spy and a passing of the torch to incoming star Florence Pugh, Black Widow has a lot on its plate… and that’s before the pressure of being a shockingly rare female-focused action blockbuster.

Johansson’s not alone this month in her bid to bring a woman’s touch to the boy’s club of bombastic action. On July 14, fellow Marvel star Karen Gillan teams up with Lena Headey, Angela Bassett, Michelle Yeoh and Carla Gugino for Netflix’s Kill Bill-inspired assassin flick Gunpowder Milkshake, while Underworld star Kate Beckinsale punches her way onto Amazon July 23 with the Crank-adjacent Jolt.

July is already offering up plenty of women of action. But should you want a double (or quintuple) feature with any of July's women of action, the below female-led action odysseys — from pulp shoot ‘em ups to ensemble thrillers and certified classics — should do the trick.

Widows (2018)

More heist movie than outright action yarn — but still featuring some painfully tense set pieces and fireworks — 12 Years A Slave director Steve McQueen's underseen potboiler Widows nonetheless shares some of Black Widow's themes of women taking control over their own narrative. Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez and Cynthia Eviro lead a cast that also includes Liam Neeson, Brian Tyree Henry and Colin Ferrell, plus standout turns from Marvel alums Elizabeth Debicki, John Bernthal, Carrie Coon and Daniel Kaluuya.

Red Sparrow (2018)

Neither as bad as it's made out to be nor as good as it should have been, Jennifer Lawrence's seedy re-teaming with Hunger Games director Francis Lawrence is essentially a hard-R look at what Black Widow likely endured as a Russian assassin. Which is to say that is a dour, blood-soaked exploitation film masquerading as a prestige blockbuster, one that forgets to have fun with its seduce-and-destroy narrative and Cold War backdrop, but still manages a certain degree of self-serious excitement along the way.

Atomic Blonde (2017)

Mad Max: Fury Road rightfully stands as Charlize Theron's most smolderingly intense action turn, but this tepidly received punchup from John Wick co-director David Leitch still rules, proving that Theron can create just as much mayhem with her fists as her big rig. The Cold War thriller is pulpier than a fresh-squeezed screwdriver, with style to spare and a plot that basically serves as an excuse to whisk Theron from one bone-crunching confrontation to another. Consider this Black Widow's R-rated sister, one that's not afraid to delve into the seedier, sexier side of international espionage.

The Villainess (2017)

Most films that have come in the wake of John Wick count Keanu Reeve's franchise as an influence. John Wick 3, meanwhile, took a noticeable cue from this slick, unrelenting assassin flick, re-staging parts of its game-changing motorcycle chase wholesale. Everything in this breakneck cinematic opus is perfectly calibrated to milk the adrenal gland, from a jarring sequence that plays out like The Raid reimagined as a first-person shooter to the close-quarter combat and balletic gunplay. But nothing tops that motorcycle chase. Not even John Wick

Hanna (2011)

Like Black Widow, this wickedly violent fairy-tale from director Joe Wright features a child trained in the deadly arts and pursued by a shadowy government cabal, only Hanna's killer instinct is bred into her by her survivalist father (Eric Bana). Buoyed by teenage Saoirse Ronan's sudden pivots from wide-eyed wonder to brutally efficient killing machine, the film also serves as a fish-out-of-water road film. The sight of Cate Blanchett's deliciously sinister villain emerging from a wolf's mouth in the climax's abandoned amusement park is worth the price of admission in and of itself.

Edge of Tomorrow (2014)

Emily Blunt is certified badass as the no-nonsense fed of Sicario and the mama bear survivalist of A Quiet Place, but in this Tom Cruise-starring sci-fi Groundhog Day riff, she becomes nigh mythical. Watching Blunt enter an alien-invasion version of Saving Private Ryan's opening battle armed only with a gigantic sword is breathtaking. Watching her do it over and over each time the character dies and gets reset is downright iconic.

Kill Bill Vol. 1 (2003)

There's not a hell of a lot more to say about Quentin Tarantino's female-focused revenge epic (which is heavily referenced by this month's Gunpowder Milkshake), but to leave Uma Thruman's quintessential throwback action heroine off any list of female fighters is a sin. For a perfect double feature, pair it with the Japanese revenge opus Lady Snowblood, which Tarantino samples in the climactic duel between O-Ren Ishi and The Bride… both films are currently streaming on HBO Max.

The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996)

Part buddy comedy, part Robert Ludlum-inspired romp, this Shane Black-penned quip-fest from schlock master Renny Harlin reinvents Geena Davis as a gee-whiz homemaker who is secretly an amnesiac super-assassin. Partnered with Samuel L. Jackson's frazzled private eye, the machine-gun-toting, awesomely named Charlie Baltimore goes full Jason Bourne early in the film, and this gloriously trashy '90s gem keeps the bodies rushing in for the slaughter. 

La Femme Nikita (1990)

Before director Luc Besson transformed ScarJo into a reality-bending, body-flaying cyber-god in Lucy, he established his own brand of highly kinetic female antihero with his breakout La Femme Nikita. Anne Parillaud owns as the junkie-turned-government assassin — later played in a TV series by Peta Jenson and in remake Point of No Return by Bridgette Fonda — in Besson's gritty, sexy actioner. The director would revisit female super-assassins often during his career — most recently with last year's abysmal Anna — but still has yet to top the killer that made him famous.

Aliens (1986)

Black Widow has battled her fair share of aliens over the years, but nothing the MCU has thrown at its heroes rivals the army of Xenomorphs that meet their match in the form of Sigourney Weaver's hardened survivor. Nearly 40 years later Ripley — who has also crossed over to Marvel comics — still casts a long shadow over all other women in action: She's strong, cunning, grounded in reality and as quick with a verbal takedown as she is with a flamethrower. She's a huge reason Aliens is Time Out's favorite action film of all time

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