When Charlize Theron appeared in The Italian Job remake, her co-stars acknowledged her as the best stunt driver among them. When she starred in Mad Max: Fury Road, she strode about the Namibian desert with a shaved head slicked with oil-black grease and outdid Max Rockatansky at his own game. As a wicked witch in the Huntsman movies, a serial killer in Monster (which landed her an Oscar) or a woman who can't run sideways in Prometheus, she's always been formidable and usually left men gasping in her wake. But seeing her bruised, beaten-up and frequently on the losing side in Atomic Blonde is somehow her most inspiring role yet.
It's a violent film, though that's to be expected from one of the stunt-loving geniuses behind John Wick. The plot involves a series of brutal, knock-down fights; the kind that require a star to train for weeks before shooting, and then do most of the fighting herself. Theron's character is Lorraine Broughton, an MI-6 spy sent to Berlin in the last days of the Cold War to retrieve a missing list of double agents and save the cold-peace process. She only has the clearly dodgy David Percival (James McAvoy, with swagger turned up to maximum) for help, so she's basically on her own against the KGB and a host of other agents.
If you're thinking, "I've seen that film, and it stars a guy called Bond," you're not far off. The missing list of agents is the same plot device that fuelled Skyfall, and there are definite shades of Casino Royale, in particular, in the snowy setting and under-pressure lead. But Lorraine is better dressed, in astonishing rock-chick '80s gear that will make you long for studded stiletto boots and wonder how she fitted so many cute winter coats into one tiny case. She's also far less likely to start boring on about wine, though she does have a chat about expensive watches at on point and seduce another agent.
It's not a perfect film but if it can get our adrenalin pumping and our power up, that's a step in the right direction
What's really interesting is how far the filmmakers go down that Bond road. Men who are definitely not misogynists (they'll tell you, repeatedly) often argue that all these ass-kicking women on screen are unrealistic because there's no way they could throw a guy who outweighs them by 50lbs, or shake off a punch that hard (Bruce Willis bungee jumping off a skyscraper on a fire hose is a-OK with these guys though). This film shows a way through: Broughton is visibly injured in these encounters, and takes regular ice baths to keep the bruising under control, so she is vulnerable. But she also wins, convincingly, by out-thinking her opponents and by using tools they don't spot (there was a shudder of horrified laughter in my cinema when she picked up a corkscrew in the middle of one battle).
And she does all this without fighting a token woman. We all know how action movies go: there's one evil henchwoman for the badass heroine to fight, because male stars didn't want to be seen hitting a woman, or – worse – really struggling in a fight against a woman, so there’s a weird fight segregation: think Michelle Rodriguez taking on Gina Carano in Fast & Furious 6, while the boys fight each other. Here, Theron fights big, scary men, and it's bloody awesome.
There's one other taboo here: those injuries and bruises. Generally cinema has been wary of showing women beaten up and abused, for the very good reason that too many women ARE hurt by men in all-too real, all-too horrifying ways. Avoiding visible injuries to avoid triggering survivors – understandably and even commendably – has unfortunately contributed to the idea that the big-screen's kickass heroines are unrealistic and unconvincing. But maybe, if we see more fantasy films like this where women go through hell but emerge unbroken and even triumphant, the sight of a split lip or a black eye in itself won't be so traumatic. This film is a fantasy, and for my money it's far less upsetting than many featuring, say, an uninjured woman cowering in fear. Better adjust the taboo: it's fine to show injury, if you also show power.
After Wonder Woman came out earlier this year, this tweet went moderately viral.
And now here's a second astonishing action heroine to get us all pumped up. It's not a perfect film but if it can get our adrenalin pumping and our power up, that's a step in the right direction. At the very least, we can learn gross new things to do with corkscrews.