Whether they’re the chilling villain we watch with dread or the misunderstood figure we find ourselves growing attached to, cinema’s contract killers can impact audiences in a wide range of ways. The love we have for Leon (Jean Reno) in The Professional, the utter fear Tom Cruise’s Vincent stunned us with in Collateral, and the oozing coolness of Jef Costello (Alain Delon) in Le Samouraï are all examples of how movie assassins can stay with us long after the credits roll.
While men have had the lion’s share of great assassin roles throughout film history, they haven’t had them all. In fact, a lot of the more noteworthy movie assassins from more recent times have been women. From stylishly cool action heroines to violent killers viewed through the lens of drama, these are some ruthless women who are not to be messed with.
Updated on March 30, 2023, by Ryan Heffernan:
A pop-culture sensation, the John Wick series has offered emphatic proof that contract killers are always going to be in vogue with moviegoers. With John Wick: Chapter 4 already being celebrated as one of the greatest action movies of the 21st century – if not of all time – audiences’ appetite for assassination action is at an all-time high. These female assassin movies show that, when it comes to executions, it’s not just the guys who excel.
12 Cataleya Restrepo – ‘Colombiana’ (2011)
The 2011 action-revenge flick may not be remembered as the greatest movie of all time, but Zoe Saldana is near flawless as the lead character. Serving as an assassin in her uncle’s Chicago-based criminal organization, she longs for the opportunity to avenge her family who were killed by a crime lord when she was a child.
From the corny calling card to the obscene amounts of gunfire and carnage, Colombiana executes the tropes of the genre with predictability which could be just the tonic for action fans looking for their next thrill fest. And if that doesn’t do the job, Saldana’s gripping performance as the vengeful assassin ought to do the trick.
Watch on Starz
11 Sam & the Sisterhood of Assassins – ‘Gunpowder Milkshake’ (2021)
An action extravaganza of blood, brawls, and bullets, Gunpowder Milkshake is the sort of high-octane exhilaration assassin movies strive to offer en masse. It follows Sam (Karen Gillan), an assassin who is hunted by her former boss’ henchmen after saving a girl rather than prioritizing the money she was meant to retrieve.
Aided by her estranged mother (Lena Headey) and members of the sisterhood of assassins (Carla Gugino, Michelle Yeoh, and Angela Basset), the film flaunts not just one but five gun-toting gals to be one of the best female assassin movies. All of them help make Gunpowder Milkshake the slick and stylized dose of over-the-top action-packed entertainment it thrives at being.
Watch on Netflix
10 Samantha Caine (Charly Baltimore) – ‘The Long Kiss Goodnight’ (1996)
The amnesiac assassin idea may be primarily associated with The Bourne Identity franchise, but the idea was used years before in 1996’s The Long Kiss Goodnight. Geena Davis stars as Samantha Caine, an innocent schoolteacher who remembers fragments of her life as Charly Baltimore – a government assassin – after suffering a concussion.
Realizing the full extent of her abilities, she takes little time to re-master her effective skill set as she searches for answers to her mysterious past. With some great one-liners and a fantastically bad attitude, Davis’ portrayal was not only perfect for the film but helped pioneer what would become something of a set character archetype for female action stars.
Watch on Pluto TV
9 Mei – ‘House of Flying Daggers’ (2004)
When it comes to astonishing action sequences and riveting spectacle, few movie genres deliver as reliably as China’s wuxia martial arts movies. 2004’s House of Flying Daggers is an enticing hybrid of wuxia’s trademark style and a complicated romance, with one of the best female assassins in film to boot.
Mei (Zhang Ziyi) is the suspected daughter of the leader of the nefarious House of Flying Daggers, a rebel force stealing from the rich and giving to the poor. After being broken out of jail in a ploy to track down the rebel gang, she is given plenty of chances to showcase just how good she is with her weapon of choice and the film is never better than when the spellbinding action is dominating the screen.
8 Selene – ‘Underworld’ (2003)
It’s not just humans who get to be badass assassins as Selene (Kate Beckinsale) proves regularly throughout the Underworld series. At her best in the franchise’s 2003 original film, the action-horror heroine is a pivotal warrior in a centuries-spanning war between vampires and their arch-enemies, the lycans (werewolves).
Stuck in the middle of the war and her coven’s treacherous politics, Selene can only trust her skill and her inhibitions to survive as the blood feud reaches an appropriately bloody climax. Never shying away from a vast cohort of terrifying foes, the vampire assassin is as fearless as they come.
Watch on Netflix
7 Natasha Romanoff – ‘Black Widow’ (2021)
The boys may battle it out to determine who is the strongest Avenger, but there is no question as to who is the stealthiest and most lethal. With a mysterious darkness hanging over the character since her MCU debut, it wasn’t until 2021’s Black Widow that fans got to explore the grittier details of Natasha Romanoff’s (Scarlett Johansson) past.
Having been trained since childhood to become a ruthless KGB assassin, Romanoff was precise and uncompromising when assigned a target. She doesn’t lose those disciplines after defecting though, with the character standing tall as one of the most prominent and empowering women in action-blockbuster history.
Watch on Disney+
6 Sook-hee – ‘The Villainess’ (2017)
Combining elements of old-school 80s blockbusters, Asian martial arts cinema, and European action-thrillers of the 90s all while maintaining a contemporary aura, The Villainess is a criminally underrated masterpiece of action violence. Compiling an extraordinary body count before the opening credits, it follows Sook-hee (Kim Ok-bin), an assassin trained since childhood with a thirst for vengeance.
With one of cinema’s best female assassins at the core of the film, The Villainess thrives as a hypnotic, hyper-violent revenge flick stacked with incredible and immersive fight scenes. Certain to raise pulses and melt minds, it may also embed itself as one of South Korea’s greatest and most unforgettable movies.
Watch on Peacock
5 Lorraine Broughton – ‘Atomic Blonde’ (2017)
If Charlize Theron wasn’t a certified action star after Mad Max: Fury Road, she certainly was after Atomic Blonde, a 2017 spy-thriller set in Berlin days before the collapse of the Berlin Wall. Sent to investigate the murder of a colleague and relocate a confidential list of intelligence agents, she may operate more in the wheelhouse of espionage, but her prowess as a lethal assassin is put on full display throughout the film.
The winding story sees Lorraine Broughton having to fight off KGB operatives and double agents, with some pulsating, punishing fight scenes and immaculate style providing a fantastic viewing experience. Constantly sporting bruises, the results of Lorraine’s brutal scraps go a long way to defining the character and making her a memorable hero long after the film has finished.
4 Hanna – ‘Hanna’ (2011)
Child assassins have stolen the limelight on plenty of occasions. The Professional’s Mathilda may be the prime example with her vengeful aspirations, but when it comes to actually taking out the bad guys not many have been as lethal as Hanna (Saoirse Ronan).
Having been trained by her father, an ex-CIA agent, Hanna is tasked with killing the CIA agent who is tracking them down. Part twisted fairytale, part riveting revenge thriller, Hanna is a bizarre and unique, but entirely gripping action-adventure with Hanna one of the most ruthless and deadly assassins in cinematic history.
Watch on Peacock
3 The Bride (Beatrix Kiddo) – ‘Kill Bill: Vol. 1’ (2003) & ‘Kill Bill: Vol. 2’ (2004)
Despite coming out two decades ago, The Bride (Uma Thurman) remains one of the greatest action movie heroines ever. A violent revenge tale that ups the ante in a way only Quentin Tarantino can, Kill Bill sees the assassin seeking vengeance on the members of her former squad who ruined her life.
There is no lack of ultra-bloody altercations which offer Beatrix ample opportunity to showcase her skill set in a fight. From taking on the Crazy 88 in an unforgettable, blood-splattering spectacle to mastering the “five-point palm exploding heart technique,” she proves herself to be one of cinema’s greatest and most violent killers.
2 Yuki Kashima – ‘Lady Snowblood’ (1973)
Plenty of film assassins have found a purpose they believe in, but not quite as many were literally conceived to become vessels of vindication. Mentored from an early age to grow into a ruthless assassin, Yuki Kashima, aka Lady Snowblood (Meiko Kaji), is tasked with killing the criminals who wronged her family before she was born.
Meticulous and absent remorse, Yuki’s revenge is angry, cold-blooded, and satisfyingly swift when it comes. The cult classic Japanese film was one of the first examples of such a story featuring a female lead and was a primary inspiration for Tarantino’s aforementioned Kill Bill films.
Watch on HBO Max
1 Nikita – ‘La Femme Nikita’ (1990)
French director Luc Besson has contributed no small amount of famous female assassins to the big screen, but few – from his filmography or, indeed, anyone else’s – have managed the decades-spanning pop-culture relevance of Nikita (Anna Parillaud). Re-imagined in two separate TV shows and a number of remakes, no successor has been able to surpass La Femme Nikita nor its titular assassin.
Granted a second chance after facing life in prison, Nikita trains to become a masterful assassin. Eliminating targets for the French government with aplomb, Nikita is not only a well-developed character but one of the greatest movie assassins of all time.
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