Angela Bassett as Mace in “Strange Days”
We’ll never know why this fabulously sleazy, cyberpunkish sci-fi from Kathryn Bigelow was not a bigger hit than it was. Even now, it’s mostly remembered for Juliette Lewis’ bad girl rock star (covering PJ Harvey), at the expense of the film’s indisputably best female character, Angela Bassett’s Mace. The loyal, strong-willed, strong minded and just strong best friend/bodyguard to Ralph Fiennes’ amoral huckster Lenny, she can kick ass, look incredible and never lose her moral compass. Which culminates in one of the most satisfying romances in cinema, when the idiot Lenny grows the f up and realizes that the best woman in the world for him (and maybe in that whole fucked up world, period) is right there. Only the trailer is available, but you get a glimpse of Mace in action late on.
Milla Jovovich as Leeloo in “The Fifth Element”
There’s an undoubted element of male fantasy to the element-made-human heroine of Luc Besson’s sci-fi fantasy (the Gallic director came up with the idea for the film when he was just 16, and it fucking shows, not least in the Jean-Paul Gaultier band-aid costume she wears when we first meet her), but once Milla Jovovich’s Leeloo gets some clothes on, she becomes a better drawn figure. There’s something admirably alien about Jovovich’s performance, and she can project a winning vulnerability even when grappling with bad guys. The actress is better known for the endless, impossibly tedious “Resident Evil” movies now, but this is definitely her finest action hour.
Noomi Rapace and Rooney Mara as Lisbeth Salander in “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” (2009/2011)
Not many characters can sustain two separate, star-making performances within a couple of years of each other, but it’s testament to the title character of Stieg Larsson’s “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” that she was able to do exactly that. You can dismiss the idea of a sociopathic, bisexual computer hacker as a male fantasy, but both Noomi Rapace (in the 2009 Swedish version) and Rooney Mara (Oscar-nominated in David Fincher’s 2011 English-language remake) make Lisbeth Salander far more than just a Suicide Girls pin-up, imbuing the contradictions of the figure with both steel and vulnerability.
Michelle Yeoh as Yu Shu Lien in “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon”
While we’re skewing heavily toward Hollywood, if we were to count down the most formidable international female stars, Michelle Yeoh would be at the very top. But even if mainstream audiences don’t know her Hong Kong work (the one-time Miss Malaysia Yeoh started out opposite Jackie Chan) they probably know Ang Lee’s lovely melodrama which serves as an easy entry point into the whole wuxia genre for the uninitiated. Yeoh also made a capable Bond sidekick in “Tomorrow Never Dies” but we love the meta levels here, which see her handing the baton to a younger balletic badass in Zhang Ziyi (especially because Yeoh wins this particular showdown).