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Two summers after Charlize Theron redefined heroism in the decaying, post-apocalyptic world of Mad Max, she is re-imagining the Cold War thriller as a femme-fatale master spy who brawls like an MMA star. Atomic Blonde, due out July 28 — and debuting at SXSW this weekend — is a poppy, punk-rock take on the genre by fight choreographer-turned-director David Leitch (John Wick). It’s Berlin, 1989. Depeche Mode and New Order dominate the airwaves, the wall is about to come down, and Theron’s character Lorraine Broughton is sent into the chaotic city to retrieve a most-wanted dossier. James McAvoy plays her hardened, fur-coated fellow agent. (You’ve never seen a black mesh tank-top look so good.)

Theron bought the rights to the graphic novel by Antony Johnston and Sam Hart with her producing partner Beth Kono five years ago. “I hadn’t seen another character like her out there,” Theron says. “She doesn’t apologize for anything. We made her strong and feisty. She’s cheeky. These were
all things I responded to.”

Coldest City, The
Credit: Jonathan Prime/Focus Features

And the actress was up to the task. Thanks in part to a background in ballet, Theron had what it took to be that onscreen badass. “It’s refreshing to find an actor who can do these long, long takes, memorize the choreography, maintain the character, and deliver a performance,” Leitch says. “She’s extraordinary.”

Theron trained four-to-five hours a day for three months with Leitch and his team of fighters. She tackled multiple-attacker combat scenes and even learned the very tricky MMA skill called a “hanging arm throw” where she flings herself on the ground, landing on her back, to throw another man over her head. It wasn’t easy.

Coldest City, The
Credit: Jonathan Prime/Focus Features

“Let’s be honest, I got my ass handed to me every day,” Theron says of the intense training. “I cracked through two of my teeth in the back of my mouth from clenching so much that I had to have massive dental surgery right before we left for Budapest to shoot the film.”

So punk rock.

Atomic Blonde
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