BOW DOWN B*TCHES

How Charlize Theron Became the Greatest Action Star in the World

With ‘Atomic Blonde,’ the Oscar winner proves that no actor—male or female—can carry the physical and emotional demands of an action film with as much badassery.

Photo Illustration by Sarah Rogers/The Daily Beast

Forget that nonsense over things shaken or stirred. Lorraine Broughton will take it right out of the bottle. And then break that bottle over your head.

Exposing just how exhausting the relentless conversation of who might be the next James Bond—and then the groan-inducing news that enough money finally convinced Daniel Craig to bring new shades of grouchiness to 007 one more time—is the fact that, in Atomic Blonde, Charlize Theron proves that she’s the action hero with a license to kill that we need. That we deserve. And that, sadly, we may never appreciate enough.

Calling her kickass Atomic Blonde “the female James Bond” is at once apt, progressive, and reductive. It’s the kind of label we use to disguise a watershed moment but we really use to pat ourselves on the back for our self-congratulatory “wokeness.” Look, we’ve come so far that we think a woman could be like 007! (But not actually 007, of course. No, we would never go that far.)

The truth is that Lorraine—and Charlize’s performance—stands on its own, a one-two knockout following her turn in Mad Max: Fury Road that cements her as the greatest action hero currently working in film. She boasts the athleticism, depth, magnetism, and wanton disregard for convention that intensifies her appeal, and the lack of which makes so many other action stars so bland.

She exudes both grit and polish, a near-impossible juxtaposition to summon in tandem, which grounds her as human even while inspiring confidence that she will kick the ass of any obstacle she faces—including nonsense thinkpiecery.

At a time when the very idea of an action film led by a female star flips the think piece switch, it should come as no surprise that Theron’s film isn’t just being judged on its merits, but also for what it means.

The result of that is messy.

Perhaps it’s understandable. It’s apparently quite tricky—at least surveying the attempts so far—to write about a femme fatale without being misogynistic or reductive, even when exalting the shades a performance like Theron’s can bring to the trope. There’s a minefield that shouldn’t be so hard to navigate in which writers might problematically fetishize or marginalize a complex character because of her sex appeal—or, worse, do the same for its star.

Sexuality is integral to Atomic Blonde, in part because of its role within the stylized ‘80s aesthetic that director David Leitch nails, and in part because it is key in deepening and empowering Lorraine. Thinking in terms of the “female James Bond” conversation, the sex and nudity in Atomic Blonde is wonderful because it is, at times, gratuitous and fun, just like in the Bond films. But it goes far beyond the Playboy-like caricature of sex in that franchise, and in being more meaningful becomes more susceptible to both crassness and politicization.

Theron’s nudity, as always, has been a constant talking point, and the star talks about it gamely and smartly. (Variety’s cover story on Theron teased how she gets “Ripped, Bruised (and Naked!)” for the film.) The character’s bisexuality and the film’s girl-on-girl sex scenes have been both dismissed as pervy male fantasy half-baked into the plot to titillate and praised as a rare depiction of bisexual love that transcends that pandering superficiality.  

There’s a dialogue to be had about the feminism of a character like Lorraine that is at once exciting and irritating. And there’s the simple fact that she kicks ass.

Atomic Blonde is the sort of careening action film that navigates its onslaught of stunt sequences, car chases, and fight scenes like hairpin turns, taking each one with ballsy speed, but nimbly enough to keep from going over the edge.

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Its most triumphant moment comes roughly two-thirds of the way through the film, a seven-minute hand-to-hand combat sequence that appears to take place in one relentless, brutal, exhausting, exhilarating take. It’s a marvel to watch, similar in aesthetic and adrenaline rush to Park Chan-wook’s iconic one-take fight sequence in Oldboy, and even more intense to listen to: the scene is essentially scored with Theron’s breath, grunts, and body slams as she fights.

Physically, it was a big ask. According to Variety, Theron twisted her knee, bruised her ribs, and required dental surgery because she clenched down so forcefully on her jaw that she cracked her teeth—the collateral damage of tossing burly European assassins over her shoulders with ease.

But what makes the sequence special isn’t just the feat of cinematography, choreography, and physical fitness required (though it certainly accomplishes all three). The demand was on Theron to command the frame throughout a week of long and complicated takes, conveying the emotional stakes, the toll on the body, the ferocity, and the intensity in each shot. Stunt double trickery wouldn’t work. The real deal had to do the real fighting.

There’s a visceral element to the fight scene that is all Theron’s work. It’s consequential action. Lorraine gets tired. She gets hurt. She bleeds. She nearly gives up. She fights for her life. It’s not the kind of action movie polish you’re used to seeing, in which our heroes defy the laws of biology and physics in the name of rousing kapow! action.

In the summer movie season arms race to blow audiences away with dazzling action, it is the greatest action sequence—and one built on largely practical effects, and inordinately reliant on its star’s performance.

For Theron, it’s also a pleasure to see a shade to the action heroine she won so much praise for in Mad Max: Fury Road. There was a feralness to Imperator Furiosa that stands in stark contrast to Lorraine’s steely cool, but the two characters share the same tenacious DNA—the same way that her Fate of the Furious villain’s wily sense of camp brings some unexpected fabulousness to a batshit film (and character).

But that’s always been Theron’s game.

A fantastic read over at Buzzfeed from Anne Helen Petersen examines the different ways Theron was put in a box because of how she looked and her early work, and how she fought tooth and nail to create a varied and reliably surprising career.

It’s interesting and almost poetic that it was Patty Jenkins who looked beyond Theron’s frustrating pigeonholing as “the hot girl” and cast her in Monster—earning Theron an Oscar and rerouting her Hollywood path. Jenkins directed Wonder Woman, which has changed the conversation when it comes to the bankability, relatability, and creative potential of female-led superhero blockbusters.  

The “female James Bond” label? Theron earns it, but she doesn’t need it. Her extensive work in shepherding Atomic Blonde to the big screen suggests far more exciting ideas on the horizon.