Charlize Theron has made movies for more than half her earthly existence. Over 22 years, the actress has demonstrated a proficiency in multiple forms and an affinity for challenging, culturally significant projects, among them Monster (for which she earned an Oscar), North Country, In the Valley of Elah and The Burning Plain. Recently, however, the 41-year-old has faced a different sort of challenge.
In 2015, she starred in a thriller called Dark Places, based on a best-seller by Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn. An astonishingly plodding, 100 percent fun-free attempt to cash in on the success of 2014's Gone Girl adaptation, the picture grossed an incredible $208,588 and was yanked from theaters after 14 days. Can you say career low?
You needn't bother. Things only got worse the following year. A love story marred by political preachiness and directed by Sean Penn called The Last Face somehow vanished from the face of the Earth. Theron and Javier Bardem played relief aid activists who fell hard for each other against the backdrop of unrest in Liberia. While the film recently got a small theatrical release, it's probably not coming soon — or later — to a theater near you.
Now you can say career low. But failure can do funny things to people. In Theron's case, it's been a godsend. Here's why: In 2005, she made a film called Aeon Flux. Based on a cartoon, it chronicled the futuristic adventures of a spandex-clad action figure engaged in covert political shenanigans. And it bombed.
The actress never got over it. For years, she reportedly dreamed of getting another shot at the whole Uma Thurman badass-babe thing. In a related story, Guy Ritchie, king of the cool crime film (Snatch, RocknRolla), was getting out of that business and into bloated tentpoles (Sherlock Holmes, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword).
Who should note the resulting job opening but veteran stunt artist David Leitch (The Bourne Ultimatum, The Bourne Legacy), known for his uncredited assistant-director work on John Wick? Now for his demented, perfectly delightful debut as a feature filmmaker.
Based on a graphic novel, Atomic Blonde chronicles the Berlin-based adventures of a frequently unclad MI6 agent engaged in covert political shenanigans. In the role of Lorraine Broughton, Theron finally gets the action film she's dreamed of and deserves.
It has a script by Kurt Johnstad (300), Ritchie-rific camera work courtesy of Jonathan Sela and a song list that could be sold as the Berlin Wall of Sound: David Bowie, Peter Schilling, Falco, Nena. This is Cold War brain candy that couldn't be more bonkers or more outrageously, brutally fun.
The hits keep coming as Theron's Stoli-loving operative takes on a battalion of Stasi goons on a mission to retrieve a wristwatch containing a list of Western spies. She out-Umas Thurman with a bone-crunching intensity and steely cool beyond anything a female performer has achieved to date. Reviewers have made lazy comparisons to the Bourne films, but they miss the point. Leitch may have Bourne on his résumé, but he's got Ritchie on the brain.
The picture rocks and rolls, razzles and dazzles as smartly as that director's best. Leitch elevates the fight scene to an art form as Theron proves herself Matt Damon's or Daniel Craig's equal. And Atomic Blonde manages all this without for a second taking itself as seriously as either a Bourne or a Bond film. By the time the credits roll, the Berlin Wall is down, and Theron's stock is trading at an all-time high.