“You really wanna do this, kid?”
The way Andy (Charlize Theron) puts that question to Nile (Kiki Layne), in an early fight scene in Netflix’s “The Old Guard,” is key to understanding the character — and all of the action heroines Theron has played lately. She’s not posing it as a taunt or a dare; she wants to make sure the younger woman understands what she’s getting into. This will not be any old brawl. She’s about to get schooled.
The two women are facing off on a small freight aircraft, and like any good fighter, Andy uses the tightness of the space to her advantage, throwing her opponent into walls and cargo to break her down and wear her out. Andy’s eyes light up occasionally when her opponent surprises her — an unexpected jab, a well-aimed kick — but those moments are fleeting, and when Andy growls, “We’re done,” she means it. Nile never really stood a chance.
It’s not just that Theron throws her punches with force and precision, or executes her stunts successfully; this is not a matter of a capable action star hitting her marks. Watching Charlize Theron fight has become one of the singular pleasures of contemporary American cinema, as close as we’re going to get to the endorphin rush of watching Gene Kelly dance, or Judy Garland sing, or Charlie Chaplin pantomime.
Her action work feels like a recent addition to her versatile career, but Theron has been brawling since her big-screen debut in “2 Days in the Valley,” a third-rate “Pulp Fiction” knockoff from 1996. It’s a film that seems designed primarily to leer at her — she spends all of her time either in a skintight white costume, or out of it — and her big action scene is a poorly choreographed hubba-hubba “catfight” with co-star Teri Hatcher. But Theron rises above, putting across a fierce, unmistakable danger in the furniture-smashing encounter. Her only unconvincing moment is when she has to throw the fight to Hatcher, then the bigger star.
Theron’s opening bid for action stardom came in 2005, with the release of “Aeon Flux.” Though a critical and commercial failure, it showcased the raw ingredients she’d later refine: her no-nonsense demeanor, catlike movements and undeniably imposing physical presence. But the filmmaking undermines Theron’s gifts, cutting her stunts to ribbons in the specific, Michael Bay-influenced style of the era, so you seldom get a clear sense of what she can really do. And she’s inexplicably sidelined in her own movie’s climax, a fate repeated in her next action picture, the unfortunate “Hancock” from 2008.
The breakthrough would come seven years later, with George Miller’s deservedly celebrated “Mad Max: Fury Road.” Though she spends most of that film driving and shooting, she also engages in a memorable round of fisticuffs with the title character, going at him with steely-eyed rage and easily disarming him — literally single-handedly. But the ur-text of Charlize Theron Fighting is 2017’s “Atomic Blonde.” The director, David Leitch, was one of the minds behind the “John Wick” franchise, and “Blonde” tries to do for Theron what “Wick” did for her two-time co-star Keanu Reeves.
Like Wick, Theron’s MI6 agent, Lorraine Broughton, thinks brilliantly on her feet, inventively turning the materials at hand into improvised deadly weapons; she wields and deploys a stiletto heel, a corkscrew, a ladder, a shelving unit, a handful of keys, a gun that’s run out of bullets, and a strategically unhooked seatbelt. In the film’s best action sequence, her investigative visit to an abandoned apartment is interrupted by a team of policemen, whom she dispatches with a water hose, a kitchen pot and a refrigerator door.
It’s both bone-crunching and delightful, pairing genuine action mastery with clockwork slapstick ingenuity. And when it all seems over, when she’s made her death-defying escape, the scene goes one step further, as Theron takes out two more villains at once, in a jaw-dropping medium-wide shot with no cuts. Like the musical numbers of Hollywood’s golden age, this loosely composed, uninterrupted view of the artist at work allows the viewer to fully appreciate the sheer grace and athleticism on display. In this one scene, she’s simultaneously Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Buster Keaton and Jackie Chan.
In her action showcases, Theron frequently plays a professional — someone, we are told, who is unstoppable and formidable, who has been fighting and killing for years (or, in the case of “The Old Guard,” centuries). So it’s not just that she has to persuade us, in these action beats, that she can fight; she has to demonstrate that she is, irrefutably, the best at it. And she’s never less than convincing.
The stern professionalism of these characters matches Theron’s approach as an actor. She looks the intense physical challenges of these roles square in the eye, and doesn’t blink. Aging male actors have juiced up their careers with second-act pivots to action for years — whether Liam Neeson, Denzel Washington or the Bond of your choice — but that courtesy is rarely extended to their female counterparts, who are instead expected to spend their middle period playing supportive wives and similar creaky archetypes. Theron would have none of that; she even created some of these opportunities herself (she is one of the producers of “Atomic Blonde” and “The Old Guard”). The Oscar winner clearly takes preparation for these roles as seriously as the immersion and research of a standard, dramatic turn, and the work shows; compare her fights, for example, with the kind of hyper-editing required to make someone like Neeson seem convincingly spry.
More important, she’s never just playing the action. The physical force and bravado of her characters is overwhelming, but Theron also knows how to seize their rare, private moments, and squeeze. Lorraine Broughton’s vulnerability is a running theme in “Atomic Blonde”; she’s first seen tending to her badly bruised body with an ice cube bath, Band-Aids, pills and vodka, and throughout the film, she’s bloodied and beaten up regularly. The damage isn’t just physical. In the final scene, after leaving yet another blood bath in her wake, she stares herself down in a mirrored elevator with a look that is closer to weariness than triumph.
Those haunted eyes return in the new Netflix movie “The Old Guard,” and we get the sense that this character similarly kills because she’s good at it and not because she enjoys it. These offhand touches and extra nuances underscore (if it were even necessary) the legitimacy of Theron’s fight work; she never comes across as a respected thespian slumming it for a paycheck. This is pure film acting, rooted in the challenge of playing a character who expresses herself not through words, but action — glorious, graceful, balletic action.
To watch: “2 Days in the Valley” is streaming on Tubi; “Aeon Flux” is streaming on Amazon Prime Video; “Mad Max: Fury Road” and “Atomic Blonde” are available to rent or buy on major platforms; and “The Old Guard” streaming on Netflix.