“Atomic Blonde” is a highly stylized action film, complete with non-stop fighting, classic bad guys and ’80s music. But putting the merits of its storytelling aside, the Charlize Theron vehicle got one thing right: If a woman was an ass-kicking international spy, she would fight exactly like this.
Theron stars as Lorraine Broughton, a sultry and highly-skilled MI-6 agent based in London during the late 1980s, right before the Berlin Wall came down. The storyline of the movie is a mix of twists and turns as Theron is sent to Berlin and tasked with finding “The List,” a document containing top-secret British and American intelligence information. Fellow spy David Percival ― played by the swaggy James McAvoy ― assists Theron on her quest to find this list before the Soviets.
The film’s plot was fairly convoluted, but by far the coolest part of the whole film ― the part that has stuck with me days after leaving the theater ― was watching a woman fight, not like a man, but like a (highly-skilled, highly-trained) woman would.
“Right from the beginning, it was very clear the way I was going to fight,” Theron said in a recent trailer. “How a woman would really be able to fight and not break every bone in her fist.”
And it’s true. In “Atomic Blonde,” Lorraine doesn’t kill her Soviet adversaries by punching them in the face one time and being done with it. And the film doesn’t pretend that a woman of Theron’s size would be able to defeat similarly trained, large men with brute force alone.
No, she has to work: If Lorraine is hit once, she has to hit back three times; if she’s pushed with one hand, she has to use two to push back; if a bad guy strong-arms her with his upper body, she uses the full force of both of her legs.
Sam Hargrave, “Atomic Blonde” stunt coordinator and actor (who plays Lorraine’s fellow MI-6 agent James Gasciogne), told HuffPost that both he and director David Leitch were very deliberate about choreographing the fight scenes to be realistic.
“Since men are generally stronger than women, how does a woman go about overcoming male attackers? Using her brains, mental toughness and the environment,” Hargrave explained. “Use elbows, knees and other techniques that use the attacker’s strength and momentum against them.”
He later added: “We had [Lorraine] utilize things in her existing environment as weapons to gain the upper hand. Smart, efficient use of martial techniques and found weapons in the environment.”
There are a handful of notable fight scenes throughout the movie, but there are two that particularly stand out. And both showcase the techniques that Hargrave pointed out.
One scene towards the beginning of the film features Lorraine taking on several corrupt cops. Caught off guard and without a gun, Lorraine gets creative. She uses a long rope twisted around her body to choke multiple men by sneaking up behind them.
At one point she ties the rope around a cop’s neck in order to kill him, while simultaneously using his body as an anchor as she jumps to the ground floor of the building to safety. It’s exhilarating to watch.
The second ― and by far the most violent fight scene of the film ― takes place toward the end of the movie. Lorraine is trying to sneak an informant and his family into West Berlin when she finds herself up against two huge Soviet dudes. So, what does she do? She uses her elbows, knees, fingers, legs and whatever else she can find to kick the living shit out of the bad guys.
When one more large Soviet man comes into her view, she does the same thing, this time using her environment: a small stove smashed into the bad guy’s knee, face then groin; a lamp broken over his head; and finally, some cooking utensil jammed into his eyeball.
Although Lorraine ultimately “wins” these fights, she doesn’t walk away unscathed as the heroes do in so many glossy action movies. She’s left battered, bloodied and bruised.
Hargrave told HuffPost that Leitch wanted the action scenes to have consequences.
“The challenge was to be true to the character that Charlize was playing and make the fights as real and visceral as possible,” he said. “Leitch wanted the action to have consequences. To feel real. So we did a lot of thinking and choreographing around that concept ― realistic action with real world consequences.”
Viewers really do feel every punch to Lorraine’s face, every kick to her knees, every jab to her ribs. It’s excruciating ― and it’s realistic. It gives more depth to Theron’s character, forcing the audience to feel her pain, and making it clear that as a woman consistently fighting men she has to be even more steely-eyed and unrelenting than the guy across from her.
It was refreshing (albeit, at times, cringeworthy) to see an action star get hit and actually see bruises and blood appear. And unlike the classic James Bond scenes where he gets the crap kicked out of him and magically heals within a couple of a days, with nary a bruise in sight, the bruises stay on Lorraine’s body for the entirety of the movie.
In one of the film’s first scenes, Lorraine takes an ice bath in a swanky white marble bathroom. Usually a naked woman in a beautiful bathtub signals sexiness and the male gaze. But in “Atomic Blonde,” as Lorraine emerges from the ice bath and her body comes into view, the audience sees that her arms and back are covered in bruises, her eye socket is beaten black, and her lips are cracked and bloodied. She fills a glass with vodka on the rocks and takes a swig. There’s nothing sexual about this nude scene.
“What I love most about this character and the way she is portrayed is how mentally and physically tough she is,” Hargrave told HuffPost. “She does not give up. Her grit and determination is inspiring.”
Hargrave added that we need to see more characters like Lorraine on the big screen.
“I think the world definitely needs a strong, powerful, confident female action hero who kicks ass in a realistic manner,” he said. “There have been many great action heroines before Lorraine Broughton, but she is a great embodiment of a modern female. Independent, smart, extremely capable, determined.”
“Atomic Blonde” opens in theaters July 28.