In Atomic Blonde’s best scene, MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) energetically annihilates a tooled-up crew of villains in a Berlin stairwell. Then the peroxide punisher tears into the street for a thrilling car chase. Glass shatters, guns fire and tyres screech in a sexy symphony of Cold War destruction. Broughton is the latest in a long line of great female assassin in film. Here are 10 of our favourites, from suburban moms to mute murderers.
Madeleine is kidnapped, forced into heroin addiction and prostitution and blinded in one eye by her captor. She learns martial arts and trains with guns for a spectacular day of vengeance. Christina Lindberg struts around imperiously as mute Madeleine in a black leather trench coat – a strong look when accompanied with an eye-patch. Villains are solemnly despatched with slo-mo shotgun blasts and the kind of kung-fu chops that’d make Bruce Lee wince. Her dispensation of justice is the best thing about Bo Arne Vibenius’ grim Swedish revenge film, which in some scenes has hardcore pornography spliced into it.
After being raped by two different men in the same day, mute seamstress Thena snaps and kills a plethora of sleazy scumbags in pre-gentrification New York. There’s Freudian humour at work in Abel Ferrara’s exploitation banger as all but Thena’s first victim are dispatched using that classic phallus substitute for inadequates, the titular .45. In a superb lead performance, Zoë Lund (née Tamerlis) is vulnerable then formidably fearsome. Multi-talented Tamerlis also co-wrote Ferrera’s Bad Lieutenant but tragically died from a cocaine-related heart attack in 1999 aged just 37. She only began taking cocaine to rid herself of a lengthy heroin addiction.
By the mid-’80s the James Bond franchise was looking unfashionable. Producers turned to Grace Jones to liven up the spy saga and she’s as striking a screen presence as one would expect from her deathless music and spicy public persona. In a View to a Kill Jones plays May Day, the lover of – and killer working for – Christopher Walken’s business despot Max Zorin. She uses an array of weapons to murder Bond’s hapless allies but it’s a surprise they were needed. A severe stare from Jones is surely enough to put the toughest foe in the ground.
West Coast hitwoman Irene Walker is the perfect understated foil for the Brooklyn hamminess of mob trigger man Charley Partanna. Kathleen Turner’s Walker is a butter-wouldn’t-melt wedding guest when Partanna (a rather broad Jack Nicholson) meets her and they fall in love. The pair soon discover they are in the same business and end up working together. Things go awry professionally during a kidnapping but ostensibly stay on track domestically. The film is somewhat flat compared to superior botched crime tales such as Fargo but is worth watching for Turner’s veracious blend of anxiety, confidence and mendacity.
Nikita’s transformation from unhinged Parisian junkie teen to sharpshooting assassin is as deftly executed as the hit she performs from a Venice bathroom window. In Luc Besson’s stylish thriller, Anne Parillaud has huge fun as the eponymous killer biting a trainer’s ear and dancing manically while learning her trade under lock and key in a secret government training centre. She could teach John Wick a thing or two about gouging a man with a pencil, too.
Kathleen Turner’s second appearance on this list is a riotous one. Turner’s Beverly Sutphin is a marvellous and satisfyingly demented creation: a prim suburban housewife facade hides an inventive serial killer. She’ll run you over for criticising her parenting, prank call you and shout obscenities if you steal her parking space and may even bludgeon you death with a leg of lamb. John Waters is second only to David Lynch when it comes to showing the ugliness behind the picket fence and this is his best film. Hilarious and menacing like being stuck on a train with a bad drunk.
In her auspicious big-screen debut Natalie Portman plays pre-teen New Yorker Mathilda. She’s only a trainee assassin but promise should be rewarded. Mathilda learns life-ending ways under the tutelage of Léon Montana (Jean Reno, playing a similar character to his role in Nikita) after her family are murdered by corrupt DEA monster Norman Stansfield (Gary Oldman on extraordinary form). Dubious sexual politics abound in the relationship between Léon and Mathilda but the film’s blackly comic skill is in its portrayal of a child becoming meticulous and cold-blooded. Considering Besson’s subsequent follies, it’s a shame he hasn’t revisited the character of Mathilda.
Suburban teacher Samantha Caine suffers amnesia until a car accident concussion kick-starts her returning memory. Caine is really crack CIA assassin Charly Baltimore and she soon becomes involved in a dangerous plot alongside Mitch Henessy, the exasperated private investigator she hired to help discover her old identity. What could have been tired Hollywood hokum massively benefits from a funny and tough Geena Davis performance. She even asks her daughter “Should we get a dog?” in the middle of a shoot-out. Shane Black brings his trademark smart wit to the screenplay and Samuel L. Jackson bosses his role as Henessey.
When blind showgirl Mei is your adversary those eponymous airborne blades can end up lodged in your throat. She’s also a tough cookie with a length of bamboo. Zhang Yimou’s exquisite wuxia is all the genre clichés allow: sumptuously shot and sharply choreographed, full of balletic and nigh-on acrobatic action. Mei (Zhang Ziyi) is part of an underground resistance movement in 859 AD China and the plot sees two government deputies who may not be all they seem try to win her affections while undermining the House. But maybe Mei isn’t all she seems either.
Hou Hsiao-hsien’s beautiful wuxia, set in ninth century China, won the Taiwanese filmmaker the Best Director prize at Cannes. Shy Qi is Nie Yinniang, the protagonist whose display of mercy angers her nun master. As a punishment Yinniang is forced to kill a cousin she was once due to marry. Alongside Qi’s aforementioned humanity, an understandable rarity in this profession, her grace and elegant dispatching of enemies and poise under pressure is a highlight of a justifiably acclaimed behemoth of world cinema.
Published 5 Aug 2017
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