The man responsible for making Atomic Blonde possible in regard to Charlize Theron training her butt off and making sure audiences can tell she’s doing her own fights is…Yuen Woo-ping.
For The Matrix, the directing Wachowski brothers wanted frenetic paced, over the top, Hong Kong stylized martial arts (MA) action and film it in a way that the West had never seen MA action shot before. They needed two things: cutting edge SFX; and Yuen.
Yuen was reluctant to take on the project and assumed that if he asked for an exorbitant fee, the Wachowskis would lose interest. They replied, “Done.” Thinking it would’ve been a deal breaker, Yuen agreed to do the film if he had complete control of the fights and could train the actors for four months before the shoot. Yuen figured the actors would rather spend four months doing another film. When the Wachowksis said, “Done,” Yuen trained the main cast, which included Keanu Reeves, eight hours/day for four months.
Thanks to Yuen, since Matrix, it’s standard for actors to undergo serious MA training for their fight roles. It didn’t escape Chad Stahelski‘s eyes who was Reeves’ stunt double for the Matrix films. He recognized the value of training the actors and how Yuen emphasized camera choreography as he put the fights together.
Stahelski shared, “We wanted to use practical grappling MA with guns, so we created a new style of close-quarter combat.”
Directed my Leitch, Atomic Blonde is set in 1989, where the crown jewel of MI6, Agent Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) is sent alone into East Berlin to retrieve a valued watch and protect a Stasi defector, and deliver them from evil. On the eve of the Berlin Wall’s final stance, tensions boils over.
With time not on her side, the icy Broughton unleashes her full arsenal of smash’em, stab’em and Wick’ed fighting skills on each foe to avenge every betrayal, both professional and personal. She’s putting out the fires with gasoline.
During pre-production, when Leitch saw what Theron was capable of, the plan was born to devise a 7.5-minute, one-camera fight scene in which Broughton methodically beats her would-be killers in an abandoned building where the audience feels like there isn’t a single edit.
Theron does every strike and seemingly all of her own body crashing stunts. And Theron’s not only becoming a female John Wick, she’s an evolving Jane Wick.
Similar to Reeves for JW, Charlize Theron trained five hours/day for three months and spent days memorizing intricate choreography so she could pull the fight off. She could remember up to 30 techniques, which makes it easier to keep the camera rolling. As it were, Charlize Theron began training several months out from Mad Max: Fury Road and sparred with Reeves at Leitch and Stahelski’s training center while Reeves was training for JW 2.
They designed Theron’s fights so that Broughton never out muscled her opponents or hit straight on with a closed fist. She used open or hammer-fists, quick elbows, palm strikes and three quick punches to a man’s one. Broughton used anything in her environment or peripheral vision as killing weapons, from corkscrews to hoses, and that’s the key. You’ll understand this after seeing the Atomic Blonde.
Leitch says, “Charlize constantly worked with the stunt team learning movements and participated in pre-visualizations of the fight sequences. They’d start with a walkthrough and ramp up to go faster and faster. She’s fluid and precise, understands how and where to land for maximum impact on camera. Due to her stamina and attitude, we used fewer cheats with her fights and could do longer takes and add more complex moves.”
East Berlin apartment complexes were typically colorless with graying dilapidated walls, thus the dour lighting used inside the building added to that blandness. Plus since the great escape from East Berlin falls on a cloudy, chilly, November day, Broughton and her pursuers are dressed accordingly, Broughton in black leather trousers with a long black overcoat. This kind of clothing helps Theron and the stuntmen hide protective padding.
Since Broughton and her attackers are mortal, they get badly injured and increasingly tired, which slows anyone down. When Theron or her opponents get tossed into a wall or onto a piece of furniture or whacked with an object, while the character recovers, it gives an actor time to prepare for the next sequence of movements.
Plus, when a fight doesn’t need to be fast paced, actors can use exaggerated movements for strikes or big windups to smash something over someone’s body. Slowing things down make it easier to remember movements. Plus, watch for the cheat known as a Texas switch.
I did fights in a 1981 Chinese kung fu film where we Texas switched the star’s stunt double twice in one shot. It comes from American westerns when a stunt double, for example, would be punched over a saloon’s bar and the star, who’s hiding behind the bar, would stand up as if he got hit and continue the fight.
Does this fight do that? Observe Broughton’s hair as it falls forward to cover her face in one shot or is flipped back to reveal the face in another.
Is the fight done in one continuous take? Other subtle cheats occur when her coat is wafted in front of the camera, or when the camera swoops under, over and around Theron and the goons, where for a split second we see no-one then we return to the action from a new angle.
These could be editing points. You be the judge.
Yet for know, savor in the fight’s moment where it’s obvious Theron is bashing out long camera takes and doing many skills per shot, which gives a new dimension to the choreography and draws the audience deeper into the action.
The final fight is worth the price of admission alone.