There’s an extended fight scene two-thirds of the way through Charlize Theron’s new spy thriller Atomic Blonde, from John Wick co-director David Leitch, that is so jaw-dropping it may well shape the trajectory of her career. We knew from Mad Max: Fury Road that Theron could do action, but she raises her game in Blonde, playing a British spy brought in to clean up a mess of double-crossing and betrayal in East Berlin right around the fall of the Wall. Theron has plenty of great moments of hand-to-hand combat (not to mention some truly steamy lesbian sex scenes with Kingsman’s Sofia Boutella), always in some killer outfit, stiletto heels, and her character’s signature platinum-blonde bob. But it’s that bruiser of a third-act stairwell fight that was all anyone could talk about when the movie premiered at South by Southwest this week.
That single scene vaults Theron into the elite ranks of actresses capable of taking over the blockbuster action-heroine legacy Angelina Jolie left behind a decade ago. What makes it so memorable isn’t just that it’s at least five minutes long, and looks like it was shot in one take (it probably wasn’t, but still, bravo), but just how much physical punishment Theron’s character takes. Unlike many contemporary movies, where characters have magical healing abilities, the stakes here feel real. At one point Theron struggles to push herself off the ground, looking like she’s about to retch, then reaches for the closest household object in her vicinity to bash a bad guy’s head in. With every new blow comes the palpable sense that she might die.
Indeed, Theron has been kicking ass for some time, here’s the proof:
Too bad we have to slog through the rest of the movie to get to it.
On the surface, Atomic Blonde should be your new favorite comic-book movie. It is based on the graphic novel The Coldest City, comes with a strong female empowerment message, and employs some of the coolest set design you’re likely to see this year, from the graffiti-covered streets of East Berlin to Theron’s neon blue and pink hotel room. Even a bit when a baddie gets hit in the face with a skateboard and the blood splatters on the lens, a moment that’s set to “99 Luftballons,” is gorgeous. I’d recommend watching whole thing on repeat, with the sound off, on drugs, at a house party.
But the bravura design and cinematography can’t compete with the infuriating decision by Leitch and screenwriter Kurt Johnstad (300) to chose style over substance every time. The movie saddles those amazing set pieces with a plot so convoluted I didn’t know Theron’s character’s name until I saw it written on an envelope near the movie’s end. (It’s Lorraine.) Her motivations and backstory are accounted for in a thin flashback that suggests she had an intimate relationship with another spy who’s murdered early on — a thread the movie then completely drops. Not that it matters much, but the plot involves some list of all secret agents across MI6, the CIA, and the KGB going missing. James McAvoy is there too, with a great, scenery-chewing part as Theron’s drunk partner, but his character also gets lost in the narrative mess. A movie that fucks with my enjoyment of James McAvoy cannot be forgiven.
But Theron is still reason enough to check out Atomic Blonde. She fought to make this movie for five years — longer if you consider all the groundwork she had to lay in supporting roles and co-leads, or speaking up for equal pay in Hollywood. When the script fails her, her eyes keep the mystery and emotion going. Theron told the SXSW audience she spent months working out in the same gym where Keanu Reeves was training for John Wick. (They’d often spar one another — please, Hollywood, make that movie.) At first, Theron recalled, she told her trainer, “This is never gonna work, I look like Big Bird.” By the end, she could throw a gigantic stuntman to the floor. “I was like, ‘We’re gonna pretend that, right?’ And [my trainer] was like, ‘No, you’re going to throw a big dude.’ And I was like, ‘All right! Let’s throw some big dudes!’”
During training, she also cracked two of her magnificent teeth from clenching her jaw so hard. (They still haven’t healed.) The hard knocks kept coming during the shoot. “The thing I can’t figure out was I know I saw Ms. Theron’s face bounce off the wall,” an audience member asked. “Yes, that was my face. You’re welcome,” Theron confirmed.
All that effort seemed to spill over as Theron took in the cheers of her SXSW audience. “I’ve been doing this for over 20 years, and tonight was really special for me,” she said, choking up. The moment felt significant: One of our greatest actresses taking a bow for a kick-ass performance as, essentially, a bisexual female James Bond. All she was missing was a movie that deserved her.