HEAT VISION

'The Old Guard' and the Evolution of Charlize Theron

The actor has carved out an action career unlike any in Hollywood thanks to characters who are vulnerable, sometimes painfully so.
Courtesy of Netflix
The actor has carved out an action career unlike any in Hollywood thanks to characters who are vulnerable, sometimes painfully so.

Charlize Theron's Andy lies on the floor, her body riddled with bullets. She's dead, but only for a moment. Her eyes dilate, breath exits her mouth, and she stands up, launching into an assault upon the men who gunned her down. Equipped with a labrys and a gun, she slashes and shoots her way through the squad of unprepared mercenaries alongside her small team of immortal warriors. Andy's movements are swift and fluid without sacrificing the brutality of her strikes. It's clear Theron has taken to the impressive choreography, her skill as an emotional performer matched by skill as an onscreen fighter. At this point, Theron's mastery of both facets doesn't come as a surprise, but it would ring false to say that it isn't stunning to witness nonetheless, much in the same way it's still remarkable to watch Keanu Reeves shoot his way through Manhattan as John Wick. With today's release of Netflix's latest original film, The Old Guard, directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, and based on screenwriter Greg Rucka and artist Leandro Fernandez's graphic novel of the same name, Theron further cements her status as a modern action icon.

Over the past five years, Theron has emerged as one of our most indispensable action movie actors. Impressively, she's managed to do so without stepping into the boots of a Marvel or DC heroine or villain, which is the most common metric by which modern action stardom is measured. There's a clear sense of enthusiasm seen on Theron's part with each action film she takes part in, and never does she come across as an Oscar winner slumming it in genre fare for the sake of a paycheck. Theron's role as Imperator Furiosa in George Miller's Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), while not her first turn as an action hero, cemented the actor's place in the pantheon of action heroes. But it was the one-two punch of The Fate of the Furious and Atomic Blonde in 2017, and her roles as Cipher and Lorraine Broughton, that proved she was here to stay when it came to action movies. Theron's commitment to these roles, both in terms of the physicality they require, and her role as producer on Atomic Blonde, a passion project for the actor, and The Old Guard, have ensured the quality of these films.

Theron's current position as an action star, while already being a celebrated, Oscar-winning actress in her 40s, is unconventional. But it is also fitting for an actress known, even in her dramatic roles, for taking on unconventional characters that push against Hollywood's attempts at typecasting and hangups about age and glamour. Even during her emergence as an action star, Theron diversified her résumé with leading roles in Tully (2018), Long Shot (2019) and Bombshell (2019), each as important to showcasing the versatility and complexities of strong women as her action roles. While Theron's distinguished filmography and Oscar win for Monster (2003) certainly helped her gain a foothold in the action genre, it was still an uphill struggle when compared to Hollywood's leading men.

There is no single route for an actor to take in order to become a successful action star in Hollywood, but it should come as no surprise that men have dominated that space with even their misfires becoming victories in the overall scope of their success stories. Actors like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren were largely immune to negative reviews at the height of their action-star fame, with acting often serving as a secondary attribute to their musculature and personas. Stallone was adopted into the genre, as his acclaim for the serious dramatic roles of Rocky Balboa and John Rambo, which drew comparisons to Marlon Brando, served as a launchpad for international acclaim and a physical transformation geared toward action stardom. Tom Cruise, Will Smith and Keanu Reeves became synonymous with the genre because of their charisma as leading men, despite their notable work outside of the action genre. And more recent stars like Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, Vin Diesel and Jason Statham have turned their personas into an industry of their own, balancing the brawn of action movies past with the high concepts and special effects of present-day blockbusters. There's not a single one of those aforementioned stars — who form a sort of "old guard" of their own — who wasn't given the opportunity to fail numerous times and still retain their place, not only in the genre where they made a home, but in star vehicles outside of the action genre as well.

Although she had dabbled in action elements in Reindeer Games (2000) and The Italian Job (2003), Theron's first action part came on the heels of her Oscar-nominated role of Josey Aimes in Niki Caro's North Country (2005). Æon Flux (2005), based on the cult MTV animated show, had all the makings of a strong sci-fi film, and could have been a notable success story for women filmmakers, about a decade before the strong (and still current) push for inclusion in Hollywood. Unfortunately, Paramount Pictures took the film out of director Karyn Kusama's hands, resulting in a critical and financial disappointment with interesting ideas never brought to fruition and a lead performance never given a true chance to shine. The aftermath nearly dashed Kusama's directing career, though she's since bounced back, and Theron's chances at action stardom, a space she'd long wanted to be a part of.

In a recent interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Theron spoke on the lack of forgiveness allowed women in the genre: "Unfortunately, the very sad truth of any film in the genre with a female lead, where they don't succeed, there is this mindset of, 'Well, if it doesn't work, you just don't touch it again.' A lot of women don't get a second chance, but when men make these movies and fail miserably, they get chance after chance after chance to go and explore that again … It's kind of like you get one chance, and if it doesn't work … If you look at me, for instance, Fury Road came a good decade after Æon Flux." In that decade, Theron became an even bigger presence in Hollywood, balancing smaller films like In the Valley of Elah (2007), Young Adult (2011) and Dark Places (2015) with blockbusters like Hancock (2008), Prometheus (2012) and Snow White and the Huntsman (2012). And at the end of this decade of exploration, Furiosa emerged.

It's no stretch to say that Theron's Furiosa supplanted Tom Hardy's Mad Max as Fury Road's iconic antihero, and among film aficionados she became the year's breakout character. The immediate positive response to Furiosa was reminiscent of the fandom surrounding Sigourney Weaver's Ellen Ripley and Linda Hamilton's Sarah Connor. Theron brought a sense of mileage to Furiosa, battle damage and a history that told the tale of a human struggle. In one the film's defining scenes, a moment improvised by Theron, Furiosa falls to her knees in the sands of the wasteland, letting out a shriek that symbolizes the character's death and rebirth. Women action heroines are often noteworthy for their near invulnerability, such as Underworld's Selene (Kate Beckinsale), Resident Evil's Alice (Milla Jovovich), Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) or Captain Marvel (Brie Larson). But Theron's action-film performances borrow from traits developed in her dramatic portrayals, like Aileen Wuornos in Patty Jenkins' Monster, in that the characters she helps create are vulnerable, sometimes painfully so. A career spent in fostering empathy, both onscreen and off, has enabled Theron to create action characters whose pain, anger and exhaustion bleeds out of the screen and onto the audience.

With The Old Guard, director Prince-Bythewood works with an awareness of her lead actor's strengths. She distinguishes Andy from Theron's previous action characters by also showing an awareness of the kind of masculinity that has largely dictated action movies, and then subverting those expectations. At the beginning of the film, Theron is the only woman among her team of immortals consisting of Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), Joe (Marwan Kenzari) and Nicky (Luca Marinelli). None of these men, despite being skilled warriors, fit into the cliches of the male action hero. As a unit, the Old Guard is the antithesis of the Expendables of the 2010 film. The Old Guard includes male characters, two of whom are gay, defined by connections, desires and humanity rather than larger-than-life personas cobbled together from famous characters of yesteryear. And Andy, as the team's leader, is never made out to be the matron or babysitter. Even when a new immortal Nile (KiKi Layne) joins their ranks, Andy's journey doesn't become about accepting her maternal nature, but in finding a reason to go on living. At the same time, Andy isn't simply a case of a character who could otherwise be male cast as a woman. No, Andy's experiences across time, her trauma from the Salem witch trials, her failed bonds of sisterhood, and fight to maintain control over her own body, give her a distinctly female experience.

What's fascinating about Theron's role in The Old Guard, and her role in action films in general, is that there is nothing easy about the characters she plays. Beyond the physically demanding aspects, none of the action-movie characters Theron has taken on have been simplistic or entirely reliant on ass-kicking skills. While Furiosa, Cipher, Lorraine and Andy all share a common trait of being guarded, not an easy quality to portray, the way in which Theron explores that quality and reveals the intentions of those characters manifests itself differently in each role. From the triumph of redemption, the sadistic pleasure of being the smartest one in the room, the icy calm of being able to play every angle, and the desire to be better even after thousands of years, Theron has crafted a robust repertoire of action characters reliant on the need of an actor's persona to substitute for craft. In the past five years, Charlize Theron has helped set a standard of excellence for the roles of women in action films, and it's a legacy that hopefully is only just beginning.

  • Richard Newby
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