Carrie-Anne Moss as Trinity in “The Matrix”
Sure, Keanu Reeves’ Neo is the nominal hero of “The Matrix,” but until he upgrades to full-on Jesus mode in the closing stages, he’s kind of a lovable doofus: if you really want names taken and asses kicked, you have to go to Carrie-Anne Moss’ Trinity. Few beyond devotees of “F/X: The Series” were familiar with the Canadian actress before the Wachowskis’ film hit, but from the moment she was introduced (“I think we can handle one little girl,” go the famous last words of one copper), pulling off impossible feats in a mostly leather outfit, we instantly had an action icon for the ages.
Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor in “Terminator 2”
Following a somewhat similar arc to Ellen Ripley, Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor appears in the first “Terminator” as a sweet-natured waitress entirely unaware of and unprepared for her destiny. But as “Terminator 2” begins, she’s already a completely different woman, mentally and as this iconic introduction proves, physically. She’s such an enduringly popular character that 2008 TV show “The Sarah Connor Chronicles” attempted to put her front-and-center of her own (pretty decent) series. But all due respect to Lena Headey, she simply isn’t Linda Hamilton, and with Hamilton almost solely identified with this role, why would you accept any substitutes?
Michelle Rodriguez as Diana Guzman in “Girlfight”
She’s achieved substantial fame in many action blockbusters such as “Avatar,” “SWAT,” “Battle: Los Angeles,” “Resident Evil” (alongside fellow multiple-potential-candidate Milla Jovovich) and of course the enormous “Fast & Furious” franchise, but it was elevating this small, fairly formulaic indie from Karyn Kusama into something special that started it for Rodriguez. As the troubled girl channeling her anger into the sport of boxing, she arrived instantly as one of brightest stars of the Hollywood action scene —she’s a force of nature, moody, beautiful and tough to her fingertips. For more on the film, check out our features on less-seen combat sports movies.
Geena Davis as Samantha Caine/Charly Baltimore in “The Long Kiss Goodnight”
At the time, “The Long Kiss Goodnight” was seen as a huge piece of Hollywood hubris: one of the highest spec script sales in history for Shane Black, and the second giant flop in a row for married director/star pairing Geena Davis and Renny Harlin after “Cutthroat Island,” derailing the careers of all three. In fact, the film’s a lot of fun (easily Harlin’s best), and much of that is down to Davis’ central performance as amnesiac suburban mom Samantha who discovers that she was actually a CIA badass. There’s real screwball grace to the comic aspects of the turn, but also a demented relish once she gets the peroxide and sub-machine gun out. Would that she’d been able to do more of it.