For a long time, the term “action star” felt reserved for the brawniest of Hollywood’s ranks.
An action star was Dwayne Johnson, barreling bad guys through brick walls or Tom Cruise scrambling to grab hold to the outside of a plane during takeoff. It was Tom Hardy mounted on the front a beat-up car in the midst of a high-speed car chase through a waterless wasteland. It was Chris Evans topping elevator mosh pits or Ryan Reynolds “Schooping” his way through the bloodshed on a busy freeway.
Action stars were mostly men, muscled like Popeye, with few emotions and even fewer qualms about killing people.
And they still are, for the most part. The fights have gotten more inventive, the explosions bigger, the tank tops tighter, but action stars, by and large, still resemble this idealized version of masculinity we can’t seem to shake – protein-powdered, muted meatheads who let their bodies do the talking, who measure their bravado by the number of faceless villains they beat up on screen.
We’re big fans.
No really, that kind of mindless, adrenaline-fueled entertainment is awe-inspiring. It’s one of the best things film has to offer but, as with everything, variety is the spice and it’s time we livened up this boy’s club by introducing a new member.
Enter: Charlize Theron.
Now look, we’re not just worshipping at her kickass altar because she’s so good at … well, kicking ass. Theron has been quietly reshaping the action genre for years, introducing complicated heroines (and anti-heroines) that continuously challenge what we previously though an action star looked like.
A stay-at-home housewife with God-like abilities. A villainous mission-director exploring an alien planet. An evil queen, a disillusioned spy, a war captain gone rogue. Theron embodies them all, wielding her talent for easily traversing genres, infusing her fight scenes with a dogged commitment to showing that yes, women can be warriors and mercenaries and bruisers too.
She proves this best with Atomic Blonde — arguably one of the best action flicks in recent memory – playing top-level MI6 operative Lorraine Broughton. In many ways, Atomic Blonde was Theron’s John Wick entry. Her character, like the Keanu Reeves figure, suffers a terrible loss and must complete a mission in order to get revenge. But unlike Wick, motivated by personal struggles, Lorraine is never what she seems — a chameleon who changes form to survive, who uses her sexuality to extract the information she needs, who almost dispassionately views those closest to her as pawns in a larger game. She tough and cold and regularly beaten and bruised in service of something greater than herself which might paint her as a hero of sorts, but her methods for getting the job done are often colored in shades of grey.
Of course, she also unleashes hell on her enemies — a vital component when crafting a bona fire action star — so on top of creating a layered female protagonist with nuanced motivations and murky loyalties, Theron also sacrificed her body for the role, famously working with eight trainers to log in the man-hours needed to sell those epic fight sequences. Broken ribs and cracked teeth were sacrificed in the name of the film’s stylish apartment melee that saw her harness a firehose like Indiana Jones’ signature whip and that savage stairwell faceoff where she absorbed blows and paid them back in kind to two KGB agents. That scene felt viscerally real and cinematically breathtaking because Theron could take a punch, something so many male action stars still seem reticent to do. She suffered, she lagged, she bled and moaned and clawed her way to victory despite being outmatched and outgunned. It was an earned win in a dog-eat-dog fight which is why it still feels seared onto our brains years later while smoothed-out, CGI-powered battles and car chases fade to black.
That gritty, authentic approach to filming action scenes might’ve been inspired by her work on George Miller’s iconic piece of dystopian art, Mad Max: Fury Road. Shaved, dismembered, charged with committing atrocities in the name of a power-hungry tyrant, Theron certainly didn’t look the part of an action hero in Fury Road but it was her Furiosa, not Hardy’s Max, that the film revolved around. Instead of highlighting a broken man’s need for redemption, Miller focused on a hardened woman still clinging to the hope of creating a better world. She risks life and limb for that vision, selflessly sacrificing herself for others, tapping into maternal bonds one moment, expertly-wielding a sniper rifle the next.
It was Theron who influenced her signature androgynous look and who insisted on bulking up her upper body in order to contend with Hardy’s physique. She put in work, grueling work, 15-hours a day work to bring Furiosa to life, but Miller often cites her vulnerability as the driving force behind the action of the film. We wouldn’t have rig chases and War Boy parades and desert-crossing escape plans without the motivating force of Furiosa and, by extension, Theron who had to make her character’s emotional journey just as believable as her physical one.
Perhaps that’s what sets her apart from typical action figures: her undeniable ability to take what’s on the page and channel it to the screen. She can act. Like really, act, not riff against comedic sidekicks or mumble taglines behind the wheel of a souped-up speedster or silently brood after slaying a nightclub’s worth of martial-arts experts. There’s a story she’s telling through the increasingly risk-taking stunts she wants to pull off. It’s there in The Old Guard, Netflix’s latest “blockbuster,” where she helps director Gina Prince-Bythewood transform the stale comic book origins plot into something fresh and exciting — a lament about the consequences of immortality and the downsides of being a “hero.” Theron’s Andy is bitter and exhausted with the hand fate has dealt her, but she’s still willing to gamble her existence on the belief she can do some good in the world — like saving a group of kidnapped school children or mentoring a confused and angry ex-Marine. She accomplishes one of the hardest things in life — the task of finding belief once you’ve lost it. And yes, she chops down special teams with her ancient ax in the process.
Charlize Theron is a different breed of action star and the characters she’s beginning to gravitate towards have the ability to revolutionize the genre if we’ll just start paying attention.