While James Bond might enjoy a martini from time to time, Lorraine Broughton—the MI6 agent played by Charlize Theron in the new action flick Atomic Blonde—would prefer a Stoli on the rocks. This is the drink she pours herself in the film’s opening moments as she eases into an ice bath, her body a constellation of bruises, her eye swollen and ringed with a web of magenta. And though she’s promised tea at Buckingham Palace, it’s a Stoli on the rocks she orders again at an East Berlin bar filled with KGB agents, shortly before she takes home a French intelligence agent by the name of Delphine (Sofia Boutella).
Her drink order is as much a trademark as it is a sendup of the Bond trademark—shaken not stirred—and it’s a sly wink at a proposition that seems more sensible with each new role Theron takes on: Better than any other actress, she's perfectly positioned to be the first woman to play James Bond.
As Daniel Craig flirts with his return to the franchise after four films of his contracted five—British tabloids report that he will in fact reprise the character in Bond 25; on the other hand, Craig also recently said he’d “rather break this glass and slash my wrists” than continue playing the role—critics have already begun to speculate who will take up the mantle. The frontrunners have all possessed strong Bondian resumes: Tom Hiddleston, of The Night Manager; Idris Elba, of Luther; Theron’s Mad Max: Fury Road co-star Tom Hardy; Michael Fassbender, who has sworn he’ll never take the part; and even Gillian Anderson, of The Fall and, of course, The X-Files—also a contender for the first woman to play Bond.
But none present as strong an argument as Theron does in Atomic Blonde, a project of her devising she developed from the graphic novel The Coldest City by Anthony Johnston.
The film is not Theron's audition for Bond, though they are not without their parallels. Bond and Broughton are both MI6 agents of few words, questionable morals, and excellent wardrobes. They are covert spies and unstoppable killers who use every tool at their disposal, including sex, to get the job done. The film itself, like the Bond franchise, is sleek, stylish, and winks at the conventions of the spy genre without losing its cool.
Instead, Theron's performance is the latest in a long line of tough, sometimes unlikable, characters she's relished taking since the earliest stages of her career. Combined, all those roles make up for one badass body of work that make her an irresistible candidate to take on pop culture's most iconic spy—and really give the franchise the kick in the rear it needs.
Can't you just see the poster? "Same name. Same number. Whole new world. Charlize Theron is 007."
Since Theron earned the Best Actress Oscar for her performance as serial killer Aileen Wuornos in the 2003 film Monster, she's demonstrated a penchant for playing fearless women. Theron herself seems equally fearless: Once an aspiring dancer but sidelined by a knee injury at 18, she still embraces the physical challenges of her parts. She performed many of her own stunts in 2000’s Reindeer Games, much to the chagrin of her stunt double. (“My stunt girl hates me,” Theron told EW in 2000, “because we’d fly her out and then I’d be like, ‘Let me do it.’”)
In 2003, she appeared in the Mark Wahlberg-starring heist film The Italian Job in addition to Monster, which famously required she gain 30 pounds and wear prosthetic teeth. The following year—the same year she won her Oscar—she starred as the titular rebel assassin in the dystopian science fiction film Aeon Flux, an adaptation of the ’90s animated series of the same title. Monster might have required a radical physical transformation, but Theron proved she was no less committed to Aeon Flux: While filming one action sequence, she took a bad fall that required a spinal fusion eight years later. (During Atomic Blonde, Theron cracked several teeth while training to "throw some big dudes," she told Variety.)
Then came blockbuster genre films like Snow White and the Huntsman (and its sequel), playing an evil vanity-obsessed queen; Prometheus, where she was a corporate suit of dubious ethics; and this year's The Fate of the Furious, where she strut in like the sort of villain who chews up the scenery and asks questions later.
"She's embodies every sort of ounce of strength and nobility and dignity and integrity that that character should have," Chris Hemsworth, Theron's costar in Huntsman, recently told W's Lynn Hirschberg, endorsing the idea of Theron as 007. "She's smart as hell. She's physically able. I worked with her on Snow White and the Huntsman. Watching her in those fight scenes, doing it in high heels, by the way, and an eight foot long gown was even more impressive."
There’s perhaps no film of Theron’s past decade on screen that has defined her more than Mad Max: Fury Road, a film that is, in some ways, the perfect spiritual prequel to Atomic Blonde. The George Miller-helmed film is essentially a two-hour-long car chase, just as Atomic Blonde is a two-hour-long, Bowie-soundtracked fight sequence. Both Mad Max and Atomic Blonde also permit their female characters’ histories to be inscribed on their skin, written on their bodies in a way that is not typically permitted of women in film. In Mad Max, Theron’s Imperator Furiosa wears a prosthetic arm, hinting at some prior trauma that is never explained outright.
And as Atomic Blonde rewinds, told through a series of flashbacks narrated by Lorraine’s joint MI6-CIA debrief to explain how she ended up in that ice bath in a crisp London hotel, there are black eyes and split lips and bloodied noses and likely more than a cracked rib or two—not just for Lorraine, but for her opponents, too, with whom she single-handedly dispatches. It’s unflinchingly ugly beneath its neon-lit veneer, and the ugliness—the violence, the grit of East Berlin circa 1989—stands out in sharp relief against Lorraine’s glossy surroundings, and against Theron’s own stupefying beauty. She pummels her opponents, but she doesn’t get away unscathed. Well, except in one scene, in which she takes out a squad of East Berlin police officers wearing a white coat and stilettos, escaping with not a mark on her immaculate outerwear.
As evidenced in both films, Theron excels at playing the icy, taciturn antihero, which is itself a Bond archetype. Though the audience is rooting for Lorraine throughout Atomic Blonde, she racks up quite the death toll, and her alliances—with MI6, with the CIA, with the French agent Delphine—are all shaky. Towards the end of the film, she finally confronts the man she believes to be the double agent code-named Satchel: “It is a double pleasure to deceive the deceiver,” she says, tellingly quoting the Renaissance political writer Niccolò Machiavelli.
“I’ve always been fascinated by abhorrent behavior. I have a real interest in why people do horrible things,” she told W’s Lynn Hirschberg in a recent interview. “There’s a part of me that wants to understand that darkness, but I can’t really understand it. So, it is cathartic to play a character who is evil. It’s a free pass for your soul: Nothing bad is going to happen, and you can explore what it would be like to be in that skin.”
Midway through Atomic Blonde, Theron finally finds herself face-to-face with Delphine, a novice French intelligent agent who had been quietly following Broughton for the first half of the film. As Broughton cautiously flirts with an older KGB agent, Delphine commandeers the conversation. Thwarted, the Russian agent moves aside. “You looked like you needed saving,” Delphine tells Lorraine—the irony being, of course, no one has ever looked less like they needed saving. Cut to Lorraine and Delphine making out in the bathroom; cut again to Lorraine and Delphine in Lorraine’s bed.
“The sex scene, people were like, ‘Wow, oh my God!’ like none of this exists,” Theron recently told the Los Angeles Times, to which the actress responded, “Trust me, women pick other women up and have hot sex. The first thing I heard was, ‘No, but does she fall in love?’ She doesn’t need to fall in love; it’s OK.”
Part of what makes the scene so thrilling, and so transgressive, is to see Lorraine so fully inhabiting the part traditionally played by a man, the part that is so integral to the Bond myth: the womanizer. Here, Theron doesn't slink away from the challenge, but faces it head on, subverting the archetype and satirizing some of the elements that have made the Bond franchise sometimes feel retro.
This year has already seen the release of films like Wonder Woman, Baby Driver, and Alien: Covenant, genre films with physically and intellectually powerful women at the front who aren’t defined exclusively by their relationships with the men around them. Atomic Blonde, which Theron spent five years developing, adds yet another film to that roster.
The actress has long been outspoken about the kinds of films available to women in Hollywood, and particularly in action films. “You’re either a really good mother,” she told the Guardian in 2015, just ahead of the release of Mad Max. “Or you’re a really good hooker. The problem with how movies represent women goes right back to the Madonna/whore complex. You can’t be a really good hooker-mother. It’s impossible.”
But instead of accepting the status quo, Theron went out and created the kind of part she wanted to see. Having envisioned her own Bond, Theron is perfectly positioned to re-envision 007 himself. Just don't call her a Bond girl.