At a place like the South By Southwest Film Festival, in Austin, Texas, movies are one thing; movie stars are quite another. And so Austin’s Paramount Theater bubbled over with energy when Charlize Theron took to the stage to introduce Atomic Blonde alongside director David Leitch and co-star James McAvoy.
In the film, adapted from a graphic novel – The Coldest City by Antony Johnston and Sam Hart – Theron plays a British secret agent being sent to Berlin just ahead of the fall of the Berlin Wall to retrieve a sensitive list of clandestine contacts.
The story is told in flashback, as she is debriefed by superiors played by Toby Jones and John Goodman, which renders everything the work of an unreliable narrator and provides any number of surprises along the way. The cast also includes McAvoy, Eddie Marsan and Sofia Boutella.
Leitch had previously co-directed John Wick, and from that film he brought along cinematographer Jonathan Sela, composer Tyler Bates and editor Elisabet Ronaldsdottir, along with new collaborators in production designer David Scheunemann and costume designer Cindy Evans to create the specific look of the film, a mixture of old-world grime and new-world shine awash in garish colours and decadent anything-goes vibes. The film’s soundtrack buzzes with 1980s synth-pop, including New Order’s Blue Monday 88, David Bowie’s Cat People, George Michael’s Father Figure and Falco’s Der Kommissar, to further burnish the film’s sleazy, dimmed neon sheen.
Theron wholly owns every moment she is on screen, strutting through the film in a series of finely cut costumes with a leonine presence. The film hits the bull’s-eye of being a tough action thriller without taking itself too seriously, enjoying the playful twists and turns of its storytelling.
Asked about the oddly prescient timing between the movie being set against the fall of the Berlin Wall and the recent reemergence of Cold War-era tensions, Leitch said, “It’s pretty interesting with the Russians. The Russians are back in. Perfect timing.”
“He’s Trump,” Theron said, pointing at McAvoy, who in the film plays a British agent of shifting allegiances and uncertain motives.
Leitch noted how Theron was already attached to the project before he became involved and that he was drawn to it for the chance to work with her. Her subsequent dedication and commitment to training meant that he could include the dazzling fight sequence in which Theron fights in, up, down, around and out of a tenement apartment house in what seems to be a long unbroken take.
It is a breathtaking piece of choreography and camerawork, in which Theron seems to become more and more battered and exhausted as she takes on one opponent after another in hand-to-hand combat and with all manner of weapons. Even people who don’t care for Atomic Blonde as a whole will be talking about this fight.
“It was something I had been wanting to do for a long time,” Leitch said. “It had been in my brain, this extended piece of fight choreography, and it’s just a matter of finding someone who can do it, who puts in the time and the training and is willing to commit to the multiple takes it takes to get that done and the months of training to get it done.”
Theron brought out producer Beth Kono on stage, thanking her for the dedication to developing the project over a multi-year period.
“This whole thing for me, I just want to say this,” Theron added, seeming overcome by a sudden wave of emotion, her voice trembling, “because I’ve been doing this for almost 20 years, and tonight was really special for me. Thank you so much.”
In a question from the audience, it was noted that in one shot Theron’s face seemed to slam hard into a wall. “Yes, that was my face,” she responded. “You’re welcome.”
Asked about the intensity of her training, Theron responded, “It was so hard, are you kidding me? When I started, I called Beth and I said this is never going to work, I look like Big Bird.”
Theron said she was surprised by her own progress – working with some eight fight trainers – when she was shown videos of how she was improving,
“In 2.5 months it was pretty amazing, things I never thought I’d be able to do,” she said, “like throwing these big dudes. I’d say, ‘We’re gonna pretend that, right?’ And David would say, ‘No, you’re gonna actually throw big dudes’.”
Theron added that she trained for the movie in a gym where Keanu Reeves was prepping for the recent John Wick sequel. Theron said she and Reeves would spar at times, implying a visual that seemed to ignite a wave of enthusiastic speculation in the audience.
Leitch set the room on fire by simply uttering the words, “Atomic Wick?” – Los Angeles Times/Tribune News Service/Mark Olsen