How Charlize Theron Gives the Spy Thriller a Kick in 'Atomic Blonde'


When it comes to Cold War spy thrillers, "Atomic Blonde" is a little different.

It's dark yet colorful, action-packed yet steeped in John le Carré-style ethical intrigue, and feminist while mighty solicitous of the male gaze. All of which is pretty interesting, but perhaps the core tension in the movie is between its wild comic book moments (the film is based on "The Coldest City" graphic novels) and repeated, sobering acknowledgment of their real-world consequences.

Developed over five years by star Charlize Theron's production company, "Atomic Blonde's" brutal kineticism comes as no surprise, though. It's the first solo feature directing effort of 20-year-plus stunt veteran David Leitch, who co-helmed the first "John Wick" movie and is calling the shots on "Deadpool 2." He heads the Inglewood-based action design and production company 87Eleven with other "Wick" director Chad Stahelski, has doubled for the likes of Brad Pitt and Matt Damon, and done fights, stunts and/or second unit (action) directing for films ranging from "The Matrix" sequels to "Jurassic World" and "Captain America: Civil War."

Leitch brought what's being called a "neon noir" sensibility to every aspect of "Atomic Blonde."



"The actual graphic novel property is very much in the spirit of 'The Spy Who Came in From the Cold,' " says Leitch, whose film is set in 1989 Berlin, just as the Wall is about to come down and Theron's British superagent, Lorraine Broughton, drops in to discover all kinds of skulduggery and corruption against the raucous anticipation of a soon-to-be reunited Germany. "It's a very Cold War, black-and-white graphic novel. I added the spice of why not focus on the city of Berlin at that time, which was full of color and life and music and punk rock.

"Then you infuse an action element into the noir," the director continues, adding a reference to another le Carre classic. "Now this is 'Tinker, Tailor with Fight Scenes and a Great Soundtrack.' Let's add the costumes [which ranged from classic period Dior to secondhand punk scrounged from thrift shops in "Blonde's" main shooting location Budapest, Hungary], and the color and the graffiti from the wall, and you no longer have a spy thriller like you would have had before. But the story is still that; the characters are still complex, but the world is fun and exciting and commercial."

And violent. Crazy violent. Broughton battles her way through squads of communist goons, baffled Berlin police and crooked English operatives who want to do her harm, and Theron portrays her as an impossibly formidable fighting machine who gets exhausted and bruised over her entire body while taking out much beefier male opponents. Although Theron has become quite the action attraction recently in such films as "Mad Max: Fury Road," "The Fate of the Furious" and "Prometheus," she had to undergo intensive training with the 87Eleven crew to come off as the smart female warrior -- rapid elbow and palm strikes, never fist jabs -- Broughton is.

"When we do movies like this or 'John Wick,' any one of these medium-sized budget genre movies, our company brings in the actor and does an evaluation of their ability to do action," Leitch explains. "It does rely on the actor's ability when you don't have the money for CGI spectacle. Charlize came in and her work ethic was off the charts. Her aptitude to learn choreography, mimic motion and remember moves was, too. She had the will and the ability, which was really exciting because I wouldn't have to cheat these great sequences."

Theron even sparred with "Wick" portrayer Keanu Reeves at one 87Eleven session. Despite the training, though, she left the "Atomic" production in need of dental work. It's easy to see why, especially in the film's action centerpiece, an appearing-to-be single take fight with a bunch of Red assassins that goes several floors around a spiraling stairwell, into an apartment that gets pretty much entirely wrecked, then onto the street and into a car chase that wreaks mayhem for a number of city blocks before the first evident edit.

The 71/2-minute sequence does, of course, have some hidden cuts and digital assists in it, but Theron and the men did the whole unforgiving ballet repeatedly over four days of shooting. Sometimes, the movie's stunt and second-unit director Sam Hargrave even operated the camera to help ensure all of the complex choreography was showcased at its best.

"Yeah, there's a lot of crazy action and camera moves," Leitch acknowledges. "It's funny, I have such a great collaboration with Jonathan Sela, the cinematographer ["Wick 1," "Deadpool 2"], we have sort of a shorthand. When we proposed that we wanted to use the stunt team to help move the camera in that stairwell fight, he was like, 'Let's do it!' There's usually a division on the set of who's role is what, but not with Jonathan and I. There are no politics as long it's compelling to get everybody involved. So that sequence was all hands on deck, all departments."

Are there ever any quiet, tender moments in "Atomic Blonde"? Surprisingly, yes. Theron's nude, black-and-blue-all-over ice baths represent Broughton's idea of Me Time. And her bedroom antics with an infatuated French operative played by "The Mummy's" Sofia Boutella got even her co-star talking about her kissing ability.

So, any thoughts about objectifying the most powerful movie female this side of Wonder Woman?

"All film, at the end of the day, has wish-fulfillment," Leitch proposes. "There's fantasy-fulfillment in Charlize's character in a lot of ways, for men and women. People want to be empowered to the point where they can thwart their enemies physically. The thing that we wanted to do with her, to make it different and elevated, was to start the movie out with that sort of fun tone, but then the action takes on another sort of role that's about servicing her bigger, existential crisis. The violence in her world has more consequences. Fight scenes that seem innocuous in all these movies where you just go on to the next set piece, after that one in the stairwell it's like, oh my God, she can barely walk.

"In terms of having a female love interest, we didn't want to apologize or explain -- or mansplain -- in any way," Leitch adds. "She's just a badass spy in this world with all these competent, other professionals. The way that she lives her life, we didn't want any rationalizations for it. If you had to survive in that underground world of spies, you would do anything you could to get one-up on the other person or, in an emotional moment, find solace in someone else's humanity.

"It was never like, 'But she's a woman, she would do it this way.' It's like, 'No, she is an agent.' " ___

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