The first time we see Charlize Theron in the blue light of "Atomic Blonde" she's emerging from an ice bath. The bruises across her pale white skin look like the veined marble of the bathroom. One eye doesn't look quite right— like the blood vessels were recently burst. When she flips on the vanity light, we're taken from dim twilight and thrust into a clinical whiteness. The bruising on her face and throat, her split lip, the eye. It all makes her look more like one of the undead than the heroine of an action film.
It's a striking image— stark and brutal. It might also be one of the only times I've seen a woman on screen looking truly trashed as a result of something other than intimate partner violence.
While we meet our protagonist here, most of the film takes place several days prior. As a result, we get to see exactly how she ended up this way. The fight sequences are stellar throughout the film, but it's this last one that's the real standout. It takes place in an old, empty apartment building in Berlin. Over the course of the scene, Theron takes on three different assailants — two in the stairwell and the third in an abandoned apartment. The fight is made to look like a single shot — the cuts are seamless — which gets more and more impressive as the fighting goes on. The scene lasts nearly 7 minutes.
To understand the gravity of an 7 minute, one-shot fight scene it's useful to have some background. Shooting something as (or approximating) a single shot is uncommon; it's technically difficult and requires a lot of creativity and planning to do well. For a fight scene, it's incredibly impractical. In most fights, you would capture 4-5 moves in one shot and then switch to a new angle. That gives actors a break to catch their breath, an opportunity to do any makeup/practical effects that the scene requires, and many opportunities to cut in stunt doubles as necessary. If you think about a fight scene from something like a Marvel movie, they're usually the epitome of this — 10 seconds long, cutting all over the place, featuring complex moves or wild acrobatics that are almost guaranteed to be stunt doubles.
The reason that "Atomic Blonde" is able to do the type of scene that so many others can't is because Theron could perform 8-10 moves before needing to cut and did the majority of her own stunts. The result is that, even if you don’t immediately notice it, the pacing feels completely different from most fight scenes.
Everything about the fight feels different, actually. For one thing, you see her, and the men she's fighting, get tired the longer the fight goes on. The one-take style helps to create a prolonged feeling so at first it's highlighting her stamina and then it's dragging out her absolute exhaustion. At one point, she stands up and immediately falls back against the wall.
What seeing her deteriorate does is bring actual stakes to the encounter. I'm more willing to believe that she might face some grievous injury because I can actually see the fight taking its toll on her. By the time she's fighting her third assailant she's picking up anything in the room she can possibly use as a weapon.
For the entire 8 minutes of fighting, there's no music or score underneath — all you hear are the sounds of combat and physical exertion. Charlize Theron is grunting while she punches men in the face. On the gender binary of sound, grunting is absolutely the domain of men. And yet here she is, exerting herself and making the gross human noises that people in a fight make.
The more I meditate on this fight the more I think about the way it is and isn't gendered. So many women’s action roles are obsessed with femininity (we’re culturally fascinated with the idea that a woman can be a killer and a 'soft touch'— a trope that is stuffed to the brim with gender expectations), but “Atomic Blonde” doesn’t have that same fixation. She's never threatened with sexual violence and never forced to choose between saving a bus full of children and getting her target.
There is a moment right at the end of the fight when, absolutely exhausted, the third guy gets her in a chokehold and whispers, "take this, bitch!" There's a moment of struggle and then she proceeds to introduces his face to the business end of a corkscrew. While he's gargling on his own blood she asks, exasperated, "am I a bitch now?" She flings him to the ground, falling to her knees on the way, but she still raises her corkscrew wielding hand above her head like a cobra waiting to strike. When he doesn't move she drops her arm and her body goes slack, like all that was keeping her upright was the threat of death. But then, dazed, she stands up again. When she turns to the camera you can clearly see the blood trailing from her nose and mouth, the right side of her face is the bright purple-red of freshly burst blood vessels.
There's blood in her platinum blonde hair. In another film, it might be bright red against soft white, a symbol of stylized, sexy violence. Some kind of metaphor for virginity or the loss of innocence. There's nothing chic about it here, no thematic resonance. It's just matted brown blood in sweat-soaked hair hanging limply off a woman who brawled as if her life depended on it, because it did.
I won’t leave you hanging; here’s the fight scene.
If you want more on how they made it happen: Atomic Blonde’: How They Turned One Amazing Action Scene Into a Seven-Minute Long Take
On the last episode of The Bi Pod Christina and I modeled working through a relationship smorgasbord and “defined the relationship.” It’s our favorite episode so far and we’d love to know what you think!