Charlize Theron and the spy-thriller journey to Atomic Blonde
Forget Daniel Craig, Charlize Theron is the true atomic blonde – but she didn't get there first
Quietly cool, intelligent and elusive, just like her male counterparts, she is a dangerously efficient agent who kills in cold blood because, well, it’s her job. Comparisons to Bourne and Bond come thick and fast for most female actors in spy-thrillers. They are often completely misguided. But here, for Charlize Theron, they may just be justified.
If nothing else, Atomic Blonde proves that, in the thriller arena, a woman can more than hold her own (gun) against any man and have an uber-casual fling with another woman on the side. Theron has evolved from her predecessors and emerged as a completely different beast.
But what a long, slow evolution it has been!
Here’s a potted history of the serious hardcore – sorry, Melissa McCarthy – female spy-thriller, along with a ‘Theron-meter’ to measure levels of fierceness.
Nikita might be the first film where we see a woman put together a rifle without really thinking twice, as well as the first to suggest that a little black dress and stilettos are not the worst thing to be wearing when fending off nasty henchmen.
Atomic Blonde’s detailed reproduction of the late-80s European underground scene owes a debt to the grungey aesthetic of this film which was released the year after Atomic Blonde is set.
But, sadly, Nikita doesn’t come out of the gate with all guns blazing. Nikita, played by a young Anne Parillaud, is a teenage drug-addict who only gets into the game after being offered an ultimatum by a shady agency called ‘the Centre’. It’s killing or jail for Nikita.
Apparently director Luc Besson, still producing kooky gunslingers, is making a point about the disenfranchised French youth of the 1980s. Bleak.
Jump a couple of decades and we arrive at Salt. Angelina Jolie’s turn as an inscrutable government agent (for which government, we wonder) was a role that had been cooking in the oven for years. She had spent time as Denzel Washington’s sidekick in The Bone Collector (1999) and did her best Indiana Jones impression in the Tomb Raider films (2001; 2003) as Lara Croft. It was definitely worth the wait: Salt added some more gunpowder to Jolie’s star power.
But, alas, it turns out she was doing it all for a man. So it’s basically the sequel to Mr and Mrs Smith. Without the Mister. Close but no bandana.
The cast of Haywire features Michael Fassbender, Ewan McGregor, Bill Paxton, Channing Tatum, Antonio Banderas and Michael Douglas. That Gina Carano, playing a covert operative, manages to wade through that much testosterone earns her a few points on the Theron-meter. Add to this that she makes some of these men and more wince in pain – Fassbender gets a severe beating – and that, as a mixed martial artist, she does her own stunts then she’s doing very well indeed.
But, unfortunately, all the bits in between, i.e. the acting, are not quite as hard-hitting as the fighting. Not much time is spent cultivating Carano’s cool – strange, considering this is a film by Ocean’s Trilogy director Stephen Soderbergh. And besides, you can tell she is much more comfortable in lycra and silence than anything else. No one said you could have it all.
Michael Apted, director of 1999 Bond instalment The World is Not Enough among other films, brings his love of strong female protagonists to the spy-thriller genre in Unlocked. Noomi Rapace, who had already demonstrated her fighting spirit in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009) and its sequels, takes the helm here. Super-sharp, she expertly navigates a tricky maze of intrigue and, mercifully, all without the distracting deadweight of a love interest. Round of applause, please.
But, somehow, men still manage to act as something of a foil to Rapace’s shining light. Orlando Bloom, with a silly Cockney accent in tow, outstays his welcome, even though he’s only in the film for five minutes. And the parent-child relationship the film whips up between Michael Douglas (yes, he’s in this film too) and Rapace paints her as naive and out of her depth. Just when you think you’ve reached the finish line…
Thankfully, Atomic Blonde is willing to go the extra mile.