“I think what’s exciting about playing a villain—particularly a villain who’s totally unapologetic about their evil intentions—is that it’s not anything remotely like what you get to do in real life,” actress Bryce Dallas Howard once said. “You’re never allowed to be evil and not feel bad about it afterwards, let alone be evil, period.”
And isn’t that why everyone loves a good villain? Because, to some degree, they function as a kind of fantasy figure? This goes double for action movies, when the villains often get to be the meanest, most brilliant and bloodthirsty people in the room. But those roles typically go to dudes, whether they be big and bullying (like Bennett in Commando) or bookish and scheming (like Travis Dane in Under Siege 2).
This weekend, however, a woman gets to serve as the main antagonist of one of the biggest action franchises in the world. In The Fate of the Furious, Charlize Theron plays Cipher, a master hacker with enough charm to turn Vin Diesel’s Dominic Toretto against his Fast family. How does she do it?
While women have played memorable villains across any number of genres, it’s in action that they’ve perhaps made their biggest impact. That’s why we’ve compiled a few of favorites here, focusing specifically on the action genre. Some are sociopathic, some are sadistic, and some are quietly nursing a heart of gold. But what they all are is lethal.
BEVERLY HILLS COP II
Actress: Brigitte Nielsen
Who is She? She may be the chief “henchwoman” of Jürgen Prochnow’s nefarious businessman Maxwell Dent, but it’s pretty clear she’s running the show. As Dent kicks back in his office, Karla is executing the Alphabet Crimes, a series of methodical, high-profile heists designed to help her boss reap lucrative insurance windfalls.
Distinguishing Marks: Despite standing over six feet tall and sporting a neat crop of bleached blonde hair, Karla is still somehow a master of disguise, with each character she plays as sartorially striking as the last. A hushed, tightly wound Russian accent.
Weapon of Choice: A Desert Eagle semi-automatic handgun.
Best Kill: Her ruthless headshot of colleague (and patsy) Chip Cain (Dean Stockwell) is both a sign of her efficiency and a testament to her coldheartedness.
One-Liner: A woman of few words, Karla speaks sparingly and with purpose. She’s also not one for clever parting lines. A cold, simple, “Goodbye,” is all she cares to muster for those in her crosshairs.
Fate: Gunned down by Detective John Taggart, who follows her death up with a condescending, “Women!” A shame she wasn’t able to squeeze out one final shot as retribution for that one.
How Evil Is She? Much more so than Dent, who is all but eclipsed by her character. Karla’s coldness extends to even her most benign of conversations; she barely even musters a smile upon meeting Eddie Murphy’s Axel Foley for the first time, though you can’t really blame her after he almost immediately makes with the sexist remarks (“How long does it take to shave those legs?” he asks). Not even a criminal mastermind is immune to misogyny.