September 30, 2020

The Pleasure of Watching Charlize Theron Throw a Punch

“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.

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‘The Old Guard’ | Anatomy of a Scene

Gina Prince-Bythewood narrates a sequence from her film featuring Charlize Theron and KiKi Layne.

“Hey, this is Gina Prince-Bythewood director of The Old Guard. So at this point in the film, Nile has been revealed as a new immortal, and Andy is coming to get her to pull her into the fold, and Nile is not happy about it. Nile played by KiKi Layne and Andy played by Charlize Theron. So for me, the best action scenes are ones that have a story to it, that have a beginning, middle, and end but are also character driven and further the story. And the story of this was really Nile is freaked out about what’s happening to her. She’s been kidnapped by this woman that she doesn’t know or understand and who shot her in the head, and she wants to be free. Andy has this new immortal, wants to test her, see what she’s about, see how good she is.” “I can fly a plane. You don’t speak Russian, do you?” “Why?” “Because I told the pilot to play dead.” “So these two come together in a fight, and one of the best templates that we used was the bathroom fight in Mission Impossible— Fallout. And what was so good about it is that you saw the actors. You saw the emotion. You saw the story to it. And that’s what I wanted for this and why it was so important for both Charlize and KiKi to train hard enough so we could really see them. It could really be them in the fight as opposed to stunt doubles. What we talked about a lot with my incredible stunt team was that I wanted to see the difference in how these two women fought. For Nile, she’s a Marine, so she started out fighting the way she was taught in the Marines with the martial-arts program. But as the fight continues and she starts to get more and more frustrated because she cannot even touch Andy, she just kind of lets that all go and just starts throwing bows, basically. And Andy, again, the whole time is playing with her and toying with her. I knew I wanted to stay in a confined space, so the DP, Tami Reiker, and I, decided not to give ourselves that crutch of having walls that could move. We wanted to be confined as well. So we built an actual plane with no flying walls. It was I think maybe six feet tall, so it was tough. But also we knew we wanted to shoot just all natural light, so there was no lighting so we could always shoot 360 at any point. And the rehearsal process was first they learned the choreography separately, did the training, learned how to throw a punch. For women, the tell of whether they are athletic or not is a punch. If you can throw a punch, we’re going to believe that you’re a fighter. And building on that, seeing what the actors were best at and what they would look good doing.” “You’re very good.”

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Gina Prince-Bythewood narrates a sequence from her film featuring Charlize Theron and KiKi Layne.CreditCredit…Aimee Spinks/Netflix

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.

ImageTheron gets the better of the title character in “Mad Max: Fury Road.”
Credit…Warner Bros.

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.

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The director David Leitch narrates a sequence featuring Charlize Theron.CreditCredit…Jonathan Prime/Focus Features

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.

Credit…Jonathan Prime/Focus Features

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.