By Derek Lawrence
July 13, 2020 at 06:46 PM EDT
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To be honest, going into The Old Guard, I felt no need to read any reviews or features or information about the new Netflix film. There was only one thing that I needed to know to be sold: It's an action film starring Charlize Theron.

Over the last three decades, the 44-year-old actress has become many things: a bankable movie star, Oscar winner, underrated rom-com lead (justice for Long Shot!), powerhouse producer, and Hollywood's top action star.

Every few years an actor emerges as the face of kicking ass on the big screen. Through the years it's unsurprisingly been a male-dominated position, with Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Liam Neeson, Vin Diesel, and Keanu Reeves all having their runs. But the last five years has seen a new hero emerge in Theron, who has put together an unmatched recent résumé, between Mad Max: Fury Road, Atomic Blonde, The Fate of the Furious, and The Old Guard. Yes, while people like Reeves with John Wick 2 and John Wick 3 or Dwayne Johnson with Fate of the Furious and Hobbs & Shaw have packed a nice punch, Theron has smartly charted a diverse action profile that can't be rivaled by her peers.

But it wasn't that long ago that this reign would have appeared unlikely. Following her dark and transformative Oscar-winning turn in Monster, Theron made her first real attempt at leading an action-vehicle with 2005's Æon Flux, which arrived as a massive critical and commercial failure. Theron has been candid about believing that Flux's failure could have easily put an end to this part of her career before it really even got started.

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"Unfortunately, the very sad truth of any film in the genre with a female lead, whey they don’t succeed, there is this mindset of, 'Well, if it doesn’t work, you just don’t touch it again,'" Theron recently told The Hollywood Reporter. "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. That doesn’t necessarily happen for women. 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, and there’s always been that voice in the back of my head that still somewhat responds to that. I’m still influenced by that, and it’s one thing that drives me. It’s unfortunate that we feel like the opportunity will be taken away from us in a heartbeat if we don’t succeed, but that is the truth. It’s not a very forgiving genre when it comes to women."

In the years following Flux, Theron would dip her toe back into the genre with supporting roles, with neither Hancock nor Snow White and the Huntsmen leaving much of a mark. But the long road soon paid off big. The exhausting and frustrating production on Mad Max: Fury Road is no secret, but Theron came out the other side as an action icon, giving life to one of the decade's most memorable film characters. While Tom Hardy may have been playing the titular character, George Miller's modern classic belongs to Theron and her vehicular warrior Furiosa. And despite whatever happens with Miller's Furiosa prequel, which will recast the role (a decision that Theron has called "a little heartbreaking"), the legend of her performance will forever live on.

Jasin Boland/Warner Bros.

Like how her Monster Oscar gave her clout to take on Flux, the success of the Miller's Oscar-nominated action epic provided Theron with an opportunity to be even more behind the wheel of her career. Beginning with the passion project Atomic Blonde, Theron would serve as a hands-on producer on all of her films that don't have Fast in the title. Her prowess in that position was on full display immediately as she sought out former stuntman David Leitch, one half of the filmmaking team behind John Wick. Atomic became Leitch's first solo outing and proved his bonafides, helping launch him into big franchises (Deadpool 2, Hobbs & Shaw) and the upper echelon of action directors. But the killer hit also gave Theron a character and project to point to and show that action films centered on flawed, bad ass women can not only work but thrive, critically and commercially.

"Having complicated, diverse female heroes elevates the storytelling," Theron tells EW. "It’s given us more places to go to and things to play with. It’s about eliminating these tropes, these ideas that women can only live and breathe in the action genre if they’ve been motivated by some great loss, or their husband had died, or their child was taken. All these trope-y things are slowly disappearing, and you’re seeing women living and breathing in these worlds the way men have for centuries. We don’t have to explain ourselves anymore. We can fight and save the world and make a mess, and we don’t have to have some reason behind it. We can just live and breathe and be."

Set in 1989 Germany as the Berlin Wall is about to fall, Theron and James McAvoy crackle in this stylish thriller, which looked unlike anything that had come before it in the genre, whether the gorgeous neon look, Broughton's fighting style, or the incredible stairwell sequence.

Theron's action bonafides were further cemented the same year as Blonde with the antagonist role in The Fate of the Furious, making her the first female to serve as the series' primary heavy. Following in the footsteps of Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham, and more, Theron served as the latest high-profile addition to the billion-dollar franchise, starring as the evil and manipulative cyberterrorist Cipher. While Theron almost certainly filmed the majority of her scenes on a sound stage standing in for an airplane, she brought the perfect balance of menace and camp (not to mention the intriguing braids choice!). Cipher is set to return in Fast 9, and what appears to be a villain team-up between her and John Cena's Jakob Toretto boasts plenty of promise.

For Fast, Theron acts as more of a gun for hire, but she's continued to take control of her career, actively producing the rest of her projects, which in 2019 alone included the delightful rom-com Long Shot, animated black comedy The Addams Family, and timely Fox News drama Bombshell, for which she scored another Oscar nomination. And she's wielded her power in a way that few have, with The Old Guard successfully prolonging her action star title and possibly launching a massive franchise, but more importantly is led by a Black female director in Gina Prince-Bythewood and two female actresses (Theron and KiKi Layne), a rarity with a massive comic adaptation.

"It’s still embarrassing to me that, in almost 30 years, I really don’t have many movies with other women that I can go back and reference," Theron admitted to EW. "For me, making a movie like Bombshell was a big deal because I don’t get to [star in] movies with a bunch of women, and that’s just so incredibly wrong...A lot of our streamers — like Netflix, for instance — they make it a real priority. They want to create more opportunities for women. So there is a part of me that is super excited, and I feel it and I see it and I’m part of it, but I still wish that the majority of my career was more like that. There’s a sadness in that. I’ll keep making films if I can make them with women — with my walking stick, if that’s what I have to do."

And Prince-Bythewood's Netflix original about a group of immortal warriors delivers on this opportunity, whether it's Layne introducing herself to a new audience with authority or the inclusion of the important and touching love story between two of the main male characters. But, as she often does, Theron carries this movie just as powerfully as her warrior leader Andy carries an axe.

Unsurprisingly, the Oscar-winner manages to bring a weight and emotion to this high-stakes comic world, all while still laying the smackdown like only Theron could. Prince-Bythewood packs several thrilling action sequences in for her star and some perfectly played action hero lines. "Enough of this s---," Andy declares before going to work on some bad guys with an axe, a.k.a. her weapon of choice. But that's not to be outdone by her remark after vanquishing the big bad: “Play dead, motherf---er!”

And there's no reason to think that Theron can't keep this action run alive. With a clear eye for talent and promising projects, the aforementioned Fast 9, the potential for more Old Guard, and word of an Atomic Blonde 2, she's fully armed for a long reign at the top.

Just take it from James Bond:

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