In “Atomic Blonde,” Charlize Theron smashes a guy in the face with a hot plate. She pummels a baddie silly with the heel of her shoe. She slings a rope around a poor dude’s neck. She then takes the end of that rope, leaps off a building, and swings herself to safety as the noose tightens around said dude’s neck, dragging him across the floor. It’s Charlize as we’ve never seen her before: as a full-on, knock-down, drag-out action god. And given the chance, she puts all of her “Fate of the Furious” cast members to shame — well, maybe not Jason Statham.
Thing is, it’s not that surprising. She’s done action before — or appeared in action movies, we should say. “Mad Max: Fury Road” was only two years ago. Granted, as vengeful savior Furiosa, she didn’t get much of a chance to deliver hurtin’ bombs; she was mostly behind the wheel, driving, with steely determination, a monster of a truck across the Australian Outback. But when she got the chance to do more — say, go mano-e-mano with Tom Hardy’s Mad Max 2.0 (see below) — she brought the pain. Hell, Furiosa tore off the main villain’s goddamned mouth.
Even that wasn’t her first action movie. That would be “The Italian Job” (also with Statham), back in 2003, where she again did more driving than she did fighting. Action movies have largely confined her to the sides. Even as the baddie of “The Fate of the Furious,” she spends most of her time in front of computers, away from the gravity- and science-defying mayhem. (That she managed to be sinister while decked-out in credibility-subtracting dreds is Herculean.) But she always looks driven. In “The Italian Job,” all the dudes are thrill-seekers, jokesters, boys who will be boys. But her character is serious, laser-focused, out to get the monster (Edward Norton) who killed her father (Donald Sutherland). Adding worse to worse, she’s also a dancer. She can move — and “Atomic Blonde” is proof of it, and how.
But there’s a deeper reason why “Atomic Blonde” Charlize isn’t a shock: Theron is a shape-shifter. Poring over her filmography, it’s clear she’s changed directions as quickly as Lorraine, her MI6 bruise in “Atomic Blonde,” can take out a roomful of minions. First she was yet another model-turned-actress. Then she revealed she could be funny. Then she turned into a serious, Oscar-winning thespian. Then she morphed into a hero in dumb wouldbe-blockbusters. Then, at the Hollywood-old age of 37, it turned out she could be a to-die-for villain as well. And now, lo and behold, she’s a fast and furious action star now, too.
In other words, Charlize contains multitudes. She’s a renaissance woman, a more respectable Max Fischer, always adding new talents to her résumé. If we can play armchair psychologist, we’d like to think what drives her is the need to defy low expectations. Yes, she started out as a model who wanted to act. Theron must have known that she’d be seen as a cliche, a statistic, bound for failure. We’d like to think, when she arrived in Hollywood, she stared at the sign affixed to Mount Lee and thought, ‘I’ll show them.’
And she did. It only took seven years after her breakthrough — 1996’s nth-generation Tarantino knock-off “2 Days in the Valley” — to win her Oscar, as serial killer Aileen Wuornos in “Monster.” But even in “Valley,” it was obvious she was more than good looks. She was that, too: Theron plays the hotcha, barely-clothed Swedish girlfriend of a smarmy hitman (James Spader). She lets herself be objectified; it was Theron, lounging slinkily, who was prominent on the ads, luring horndogs into the theater. But Theron means business. Her character’s looks barely conceal her razor-sharp intelligence. Ditto her physical prowess. She gives her all in an epic mid-film catfight with Teri Hatcher. Theron loses, but she stood her ground, and her death scene is slow, agonizing and way more devastating than the movie deserves.
Of course, Theron was still a looker. She received her share of thankless pretty girl roles, which she tried to imbue with intelligence, wit and depth of feeling. Smarter filmmakers knew she could do more. Tom Hanks didn’t give her a lot of screentime in 1996’s “That Thing You Do!”, but she’s hilariously heartless as the arm candy girlfriend of our soulful drummer hero (Tom Everett Scott), her disinterest in his little rock-band-that-could epic. Theron stole two separate bad Woody Allen movies: “Celebrity” and “Curse of the Jade Scorpion,” both worth seeing just to see her.
“The Devil’s Advocate” came early in her career, just a year after “2 Days in the Valley,” and she stole that one, too — or, rather, any part not stolen by a never more OTT Al Pacino. As the wife of Keanu Reeves’ tempted lawyer, she gets to meltdown over the film, driven insane by devilish visions and her husband’s wandering ways. Theron gives it her all — again, only one year after she seemed like just another model who thinks she can act.
Still, her “Monster” turn was treated like a leftfield shocker, which should say more about the underwritten parts she was getting (“Men of Honor,” “The Legend of Bagger Vance,” “Sweet November,” with Keanu again) than about her talents. Theron never gave up pushing herself, diversifying. Her Oscar led to more respectable fare (which is to say serious yet forgettably dull fare like “North Country” and “In the Valley of Elah”), as well as a dumb, failed blockbuster (“Aeon Flux”), which she rose above with class, elegance and cucumber cool.
Still, she was getting older — by Hollywood standards. “Young Adult,” written by Diablo Cody, is the first Theron where she seems jaded, cynical, weary — and hilariously so. As a grouchy teen novelist, she nurses rotgut whiskey like a pro while trying to steal her doofus high school boyfriend away from his family. It’s a commentary on someone aging out of a profession with a sadistically low age limit.
By the time she wound up as the aging, bitter villain in “Snow White and the Huntsman,” terrorizing the new class of Hollywood female royalty (Kristen Stewart), she was only in her mid-to-late 30s. You can see the rage at a system that was already putting her out to pasture. But you can also sense pride. She steals the movie, vamping regally, purring threats and insults, wielding her anger like one of the proton packs from “Ghostbusters” and firing it anyone who would doubt her.
Theron can still play nice, though even the nice ones have some edge. In “Atomic Blonde,” she’s technically the hero — but Lorraine isn’t to be trusted any more than any of the slippery government agents who may betray or fight her. She reigns over the film with badass superiority, barely speaking, communicating mostly with her fists and her legs. In some ways, it’s the culmination of a career that began by beating the odds, torpedoing stereotypes. The lesson of any Charlize turn: Never underestimate her. Otherwise you’ll get a champagne bottle broken in your eye.
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge