Women of action are a very popular commodity. Not only do they present strong role models for the ladies, but are incredibly appealing to men as well. They appear to have it all, and incorporating one into your action/adventure no-budget epic could boost the desire for others to see it. How many video covers have you seen with a hot girl holding a gun? You don't have to go for purely exploitation elements to make this character work for you, and developing a strong, multi-faceted female is always better than a stereotype.
In developing a treatment for my first feature length script (working title: Mad World) in the action/thriller genre, a strong woman has bubbled up to the surface. Catherine "Cat" Reese is her name, and she works for a government agency that our government doesn't know exists (don't worry, it'll sound better as it's developed, I promise). She is strong willed, tenacious, and guarded. She looks very business like, but don't get in her way or you could be staring at the ceiling tile in Intensive Care.
In thinking about Cat, I pondered about action heroines of the past and what makes them special. There have been many, from Lynda Carter's Wonder Woman all the way to Jennifer Garner's Sydney Bristow. They are more alike than different, and I've come up with a list of things that all these characters share, and that we can emulate in the women of action that we conjure up.
They are Smart
Intelligence is strength, and any character written as smart is going to be more formidable if a hero, or more menacing if a villain. While lots of action heroines have book smarts (Lara Croft, Dana Scully), they can be street smart as well (Sarah Connor, Ripley). Wherever they get their brains, they use them to get themselves out of tight situations. It's these problem solving skills that help make them so impressive. They are someone we want around to save our skins, and prevent us from cutting the wrong wire.
They are Tough
The old Timex watch ad declared, "takes a licking and keeps on ticking". Our favorite women are the same way. Despite being "the weaker sex", these movie characters can take just as much of a beating as the guys do (Hilary Swank comes to mind--Million Dollar Baby, not The Next Karate Kid). Realistic or not, it's dang affecting. I think this high threshold of pain has something to do with the ability to give birth. No guy could ever do that, and if he had to, would probably weep like an infant and beg for his mommy.
They are Beautiful
It's sort of a given that action heroines are hotties (Buffy, Trinity), cementing the notion that beauty equates with power. I think casting an attractive woman is always a good move (just make sure she can act), as you will draw male viewers and have an excellent subject for a movie poster. There are exceptions, of course (Amy Madigan in Streets of Fire comes to mind), but the fact is that the sex appeal of a woman only increases her strength on the screen. Why not use it?
They Fight Like Lions
Hand-to-hand combat in a movie is all the rage these days, and it's rare that a woman loses in this venue. Female action stars kick ass in close combat, and they all seem to know a martial art or two. This might be tougher in your low budget production, but find someone who can train them (if just for that sequence), so you don't try to resort to quick cutting. That never looks good. Get them to fight each other (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or Kill Bill vol. 2) and you've got one hell of a battle.
They Know Their Weapons
With all of these other things going for them, as soon as Action Girl picks up a gun or sword, you're as good as dead (unless you're a main character, in which case you die later). They all seem to be uber-proficient in killing, finding time to fit the range in between college and the salon (Alias). They are snipers, samurais, and Rambo all rolled up into one. The bad guys need a thousand rounds to make her dance, but all she needs is one to finish the job.
Women of action are fun to watch (and listen to, as they typically get the good dialogue), especially if they are well written. It's the ones that come across as real people that we remember. They just happen to be real people who have a master's degree, a modeling contract, a gold medal in the Biathalon, and a fifth-degree black belt. Gotta problem with that?