Action remains the dominant genre of blockbuster filmmaking, be it through the lens of big-budget superhero franchises or leaner fight-focused retro efforts that have quietly made a resurgence thanks to the surprise successes of movies like John Wick. There was a time when leading a gut-busting, no-holds-barred action franchise could make a star. Nowadays, the genre is more centered on big name properties than A-List actors, with the possible exception of Tom Cruise and his perennially successful Mission Impossible series. That may be changing with the likes of Keanu Reeves’s career renaissance with John Wick, and now, Charlize Theron is continuing her move into modern day action heroine with Atomic Blonde.
Directed by David Leitch, the stunt coordinator behind the John Wick franchise (soon to be directing the sequel to Deadpool), Atomic Blonde stars Theron as an MI6 agent in Berlin, just before the collapse of the wall, on a mission to find a list of double agents who are being smuggled into the West. After premiering to an enthusiastic response at South by Southwest this March, the film opened this week to mostly positive reviews and a respectable first week gross. While critics have differed on the film's strengths and weaknesses - the neon styling and '80s score have been well received, while the plotting has been considered a let-down - there's been near universal acclaim for Theron's performance. The actress has been celebrated for her full-throttle commitment to the part, including doing much of the stunt-work herself and signaling the birth of a new kind of on-screen heroine, something of a broodier and more cynical sister to Wonder Woman. Action films with women protagonists aren't new, but they are a decidedly rarer beast than their male counterparts. It's uncommon to see a film like this headlined by a major female star - an Academy Award winner, no less - that could signal a larger shift in the genre. Theron leads that charge and is well on her way to becoming one of our generation's defining action stars.
For those of us who have followed Theron’s career over the years, her shift into a major action heroine has been a surprise. After working as a model, Theron made her major debut in 2 Days in the Valley before moving onto a series of supporting roles in films such as The Devil's Advocate and The Astronaut's Wife, primarily in wife and girlfriend roles. Most of her work wasn't especially acclaimed, nor did it make much at the box office, but Theron became notable in the press as a striking sex symbol. She later admitted that assumptions about her acting abilities due to her beauty put many people off hiring her for more substantial roles. That changed when Patty Jenkins, the director of Wonder Woman, made her feature length debut with Monster, a biopic of the infamous serial killer Aileen Wuornos. The role changed Theron's life and career, bagging her the Oscar for Best Actress and drawing universally positive reviews for her transformative performance, wherein she gained weight and wore prosthetics to more fully fit Wuornos's appearance.
Following that, Theron made her first jump into the action genre with Aeon Flux, an adaptation of the cult MTV sci-fi animation, directed by Karyn Kusama. Theron committed to the role by training hard and doing many of her own stunts, which resulted in a neck injury that left her hospitalized for five days, followed by six weeks of grueling physical therapy. Today, Aeon Flux isn't remembered with much fondness. Kusama expressed disappointment with the end result after the studio heavily re-edited the movie without her involvement, and it failed to make back its $65m budget. However, despite its abundance of flaws, there's much to enjoy in Aeon Flux, and Theron's performance is one of them. She has the dextrous physicality for the lead role and conveys a steely coolness throughout that's not unlike a Bond girl or even Bond himself.