Charlize Theron: 6 roles that cemented her as a modern action icon

As a performer, Charlize Theron is remarkably versatile. She can move from hard-hitting Oscar performances (Monster) to blackly comic drama (Young Adult), creepy sci-fi horror (Prometheus) to knockabout hilarity (Long Shot).

Yet standing alongside all of that is Theron's emergence as a contemporary icon of action cinema. She has picked up the mantle of Alien's Sigourney Weaver, having carved out a niche to front her own action movies in the midst of a notoriously sexist industry. It was a career move recently discussed by Theron herself during a 2020 Comic-Con@Home panel, which she joined fresh from her starring role in action-thriller The Old Guard.

So, we thought we'd recap the classic (and, occasionally, not-so-classic) films that sent Theron on her way to becoming a pioneering action stalwart.


1. The Italian Job (2003)

During Comic-Con@Home, Theron was candid about the sexist double-standards she faced when filming the remake of The Italian Job. She recalls being forced into several weeks more driving training than her male co-stars (including Mark Wahlberg and Jason Statham), but the end result played to her advantage. She subsequently became far more skilled at learning to stunt-drive the Minis during the film's various action sequences, and it could be said that Theron's facility with stunts on this film helped pave the way for the later likes of Mad Max: Fury Road.

2. Aeon Flux (2005)

We all learn more from our mistakes than our successes, right? Certainly, the failure of this dystopian sci-fi adventure was flagged by Theron as a pivotal moment in her career. She said that following the film's critical drubbing and dismal box office takings, she had to re-assert herself as a viable action star over the next few years. For that reason, Theron says she now fully commits herself with every subsequent action performance, motivated by the fear that "it could be the last one". We can probably thank Aeon Flux for giving rise (albeit indirectly) to those fearsomely ballsy Theron performances in the likes of Atomic Blonde.

3. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

If we're furthering the comparison between Charlize Theron and Sigourney Weaver, this is surely the former's equivalent of Aliens. Mad Max: Fury Road broke down boundaries in many ways, not least by proving that then 60-year-old director George Miller had more creative gas in his tank than many filmmakers half his age. However, it was more significant for empowering and highlighting the role of Theron's rig-driving character Imperator Furiosa, who steals the show from Tom Hardy's titular Max. Amidst the wreckage, fetish costumes and flamethrowing guitars, Fury Road unexpectedly emerges as movie attuned to the arc of its women characters. And Theron's arrestingly contradictory performance, by turns steely, vulnerable and resourceful, is the nitrous oxide element that keeps the thing charging forward.

4. The Fate of the Furious (2017)

Of course, not all of Theron's action roles have been heroic and virtuous. She twisted her screen image in the eighth instalment of the Fast & Furious franchise, emerging as the rare character with power over Vin Diesel's bruising Dominic Toretto. Her character, nefarious hacker Cipher, blackmails Dom into turning against his crew (sorry, 'family'), and for that, she deserves recognition within the wider Fast & Furious canon. True, she might not have much to do apart from stand in front of a computer screen while sporting dreadlocks. But Theron can do a lot with that piercing thousand-yard stare – it's often more lethal than the film's numerous mega-tonne explosions. The good news is, Cipher returns in next year's Fast & Furious 9.

5. Atomic Blonde (2017)

By her own admission, Theron pushed herself to the limit in making this eighties-flavoured, Cold War spy thriller. Atomic Blonde was inspired by a then-unfinished graphic novel, and Theron seized on the chance to play platinum-blonde British spy Lorraine. The role plays to her various strengths: it is both icily commanding and wince-inducingly physical, with Theron committing to numerous jaw-dropping fight scenes. It's the action that's the most memorable aspect of Atomic Blonde, with Theron again breaking down the boundaries of female representation within genre cinema. The long-take hand to hand battles are giving a considerable boost by the fact that it's Theron throwing herself into the fray.

6. The Old Guard (2020)

In a summer that's been decidedly low on popcorn thrills, we can always rely on Charlize Theron to deliver the action goods. Adapted from the graphic novel of the same name, The Old Guard has an intriguing premise. Theron showcases an engaging mixture of melancholy ennui and badass physicality as the leader of an immortal group of beings. Together, they take on the latest threat to their existence: a fiendish CEO who wants to harness their genetic code. Even when the action heads down familiar routes, Theron's charisma keeps things moving, all the while suggesting the potential for further character development in future films.

What's your favourite Charlize Theron performance? Let us know @Cineworld.