One of the reasons so many actors’ careers seem like disappointments after winning an Oscar is that the award often bumps them into another pay grade, and suddenly character actors or former B-listers are receiving offers just as lucratively terrible as the biggest names in town. This goes double for women—or is it half? Great, mainstream roles for women over a certain age are still so rare, even with an Oscar, that a fair amount of strategizing is required to stay in the spotlight (in contrast with, say, Leonardo DiCaprio, who gets to stay in the spotlight pretty much just by picking a movie and doing it).

That, in turn, may be why a fair number of Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress winners try their hand at action roles later in their careers. It’s not a given, but it’s not uncommon, either: Halle Berry followed up her Oscar-winning turn in Monster’s Ball by playing an ass-kicking Bond girl in Die Another Day; Angelina Jolie played Lara Croft not long after winning for Girl, Interrupted; even Helen Mirren has done some novelty action work in sequels like RED 2 and The Fate of the Furious. Whether these transitions have been successful is another matter—Berry’s long-discussed Bond spinoff movie never happened, Jolie’s financially successful action pictures are no one’s idea of genre classics, and Mirren mostly turns up in action movies as a sort of in-joke. In general, Hollywood seems more comfortable placing these women in give-me-back-my-kid thrillers in the Jodie Foster vein (see Berry’s upcoming Kidnap) than letting them kick ass in the manner of equally unlikely action heroes like Keanu Reeves or Liam Neeson.

How is it, then, that Charlize Theron, who won Best Actress for Monster way back in 2004, has become a credible action icon? Her more typical post-Oscar blockbuster play was the flop Aeon Flux, over a decade ago. But with Mad Max: Fury Road and now Atomic Blonde, she’s become major prestige ass-kicker. She’s the rare “serious” performer where her pulpy roles may well outlast her more dramatic stuff.

Though she won her Oscar for extraordinary work as the open-nerved serial killer Aileen Wuornos, many of Theron roles before and after exude a certain chill—she rarely plays outright villains (though she’s wonderful as the Evil Queen in those dumb Snow White movies), but she’s equally unlikely to sign on for a fluffy rom-com. But her action movie success doesn’t come from a simple sublimation of warmth in order to convince as a killing machine. In Fury Road, she has a deeply emotional breakdown when she realizes the “green place” she’s been driving towards no longer exists. In Atomic Blonde, her crafty secret agent Lorraine Broughton is carrying out a mission in 1989 Berlin and in between plot twists and life-or-death fisticuffs manages to mourn several deaths. She does so with a vengeance, but the character never seems fueled by a bloodlust. In fact, hardly anyone dies at her hand for the first half of the movie or so (plenty of injuries, sure, but until she’s really being targeted for death, she’s more apt to disarm and dismantle a gun than turn it on her attacker).

Though Theron embraces a full physicality even before her first big action sequence, emerging battered and naked from an ice bath in her first scene, what really registers amidst the high style—chilly blue-greys, neon accents, slick dissolves from scene to scene—is her face. Director David Leitch (half of the duo who did the original John Wick) lingers on close-ups of Theron, allowing her to anchor an otherwise ultra-stylized world that may be plotted like a particular convoluted Cold War airport novel but betrays its graphic-novel origins early and often.

Stare long enough at any striking face, and it can be imbued with meaning; Haywire’s Gina Carano, for example, isn’t really an actor by trade, but damned if Steven Soderbergh fixing his camera on her determined visage doesn’t convey an intensity many more experienced actors can’t muster in similar circumstances. But Theron is particularly adept at the subtleties of silent performance, summoned most masterfully in Young Adult, where every tiny quiver of her character’s face registered, even (or especially) when it was her only sign of emotional life. The plot mechanics of the Atomic Blonde movie are, if not full-on incomprehensible, dependent enough on half-sketched characters and their half-sketched motivations that it’s relatively hard to follow. Yet scene to scene, especially when she’s placed opposite Sofia Boutella as a flirtatious novice of a French spy, Theron (whose character’s story she explains from an interrogation room) carries it through.

It helps that she’s also as convincing as any A-list actor I’ve seen in the fine art of giving and taking punches. Late in Atomic Blonde, Leitch unleashes an instant hall-of-fame action sequence that pits Lorraine opposite a half-dozen henchmen or more while trying to protect an important East Berlin defector. It unfolds in what looks like one take, and I have no idea whether Leitch hid a bunch of cuts (there’s one clear spot for it), whether he was able to slip Theron’s stunt double into the sequence, or even how in hell they handled the makeup job that sees Lorraine go from pristine to bloodied and bruised in what looks like real time. But I do know that this sequence wouldn’t work nearly so well without Theron’s ferocity. Atomic Blonde is a blast—obvious ’80s needle drops, casual and unstigmatized bisexuality, trying-too-hard script, James McAvoy and all—and of the reasons it never turns into a smirky John Woo semi-spoof like Shoot ‘Em Up is Theron’s confident command of both her acting and her iconography (her numerous and frequent costume changes somehow seem absolutely necessary). It’s a potent reminder of how serious acting talent can be channeled into genre stardom.

 

Photo illustrations by Morgan McMullen