The DNA of Atomic Blonde's One-Take Fight Scene
Atomic Blonde is a decent spy movie, a good feature for the weird phase of James McAvoy’s career, and a very good Charlize Theron vehicle. But three years after the film’s debut, Atomic Blonde is best remembered as an excellent action movie – in particular for its seven-minute, faux-one-shot fight scene on a Berlin stairwell. In addition to Director David Leitch’s stunt background, the segment works largely because of Charlize Theron. A trained ballet dancer, Theron prepared extensively for the sequence, including sparring with Keanu Reeves, who was getting in shape for John Wick: Chapter 2 during the same period. She may have cracked her jaw and broken a rib during training, but her conditioning and near-professional level moves are what sell the fight.
The extended fight scene works for another reason: it’s not the first of its kind, and it takes advantage of that. In honor of those that came before, here’s a look at five of the best one-take fight scenes in cinema history, and how they influenced Charlize Theron’s kick-ass stairwell fight in Atomic Blonde.
Long-take fight scenes had happened before Creed, but by building one into the most popular boxing movie franchise in history, Ryan Coogler highlighted the 'sport' aspects of fighting. It requires athleticism. It saps energy. It exhausts. And like any sport with massive, concentrated energy exertion, fighting is noisy. Fighters are noisy. For cinematic effect, fighters are often quiet during their big moments, sometimes accompanied by a propulsive score that hypes the audience. In Creed, the long-take sequence has no score. The roar of the crowd, the tap-tap-thwap of the punches, the ringing of the bell, and the heavy breathing of the boxers make up the soundscape. Atomic Blonde took this a step further: also stripped of a score, the fight sequence sounds like a professional tennis match, Theron and her counterparts screaming every time they throw a punch, or dodge a knife jab. Without watching, listen to the Atomic Blonde video from 2:02-2:20. What would you guess is happening? Probably a mix of sex, murder, and wrestling. Creed also emphasized point-of-view with Coogler and DP Maryse Alberti’s camerawork. Rather than using the popular God’s view (see Oldboy) or spinning the camera to reveal new opponents at the last minute (see Hanna and The Protector), Creed puts everything in the frame, trying to immerse us in the fight rather than emphasize how cool the shot is. The camera circles the men – that’s a necessity of a oner – but it spends most of its time over the shoulder of whoever’s being punched, or in the face of whoever is doing the punching. Atomic Blonde took this even further: the camera became a participant in the fight, jostling, stumbling, even seemingly falling down the stairs. It’s bumpy rather than smooth, and like Creed, it draws attention to the fight rather than the impressive camerawork. Hanna (2011) Eric Bana’s fight scene in Hanna doesn't share much with Charlize Theron’s staircase melee in Atomic Blonde. Hanna’s camerawork is smoother and flashier; it has a kick-ass synth-score; it occurs entirely on one floor; and Eric Bana defeats a handful of guys in about 30 seconds.
But in the build-up, it takes advantages of an important building block of film: blocking to create tension. As Bana walks toward the subway, the camera builds suspense by showing the audience that men are following him, without letting the character see. Atomic Blonde does a similar thing several times during its fight scene, allowing us to peak around walls or behind Theron's character, even when she can't see what's coming.
Most fight scenes require extensive blocking for the actual fight, but both Hanna and Atomic Blonde rely on it during the lull - before the fight in the former, during it in the latter. From 3:55-4:05, Theron's character takes the briefest of breathers, standing on the other side of a wall from her target. The camera spins and then pulls away, showing us both fighters, though neither can see the other.
The Protector (Tom-Yum-Goong) (2005) Probably my favorite of the scenes on this list, The Protector understands the value of a very simple concept: levels. What’s better than a fight scene that goes left and right, around corners, down hallways, and through various rooms? A fight scene that goes up and down.
While The Protector’s altitude escalates with its fight, Atomic Blonde sends Charlize to the top in an elevator, only to let her make her way down in the heat of the battle. Both scenes also rely on I-thought-they-killed-them-already opponents, using that to surprise both the hero and the audience. But where Atomic Blonde draws the viewer into the fight, The Protector keeps us at a remove: at certain points, the camera movements actually anticipate the next action in the fight, somewhat betraying that element of surprise. Oldboy (2003)
As the description to this YouTube video says, Oldboy’s long fight sequence is a “cool scene done in one shot. Very unique scene and pretty well choreographed. Very impressive[.]” I agree. And the best thing about it is how real it feels. Choi Min-sik looks exhausted. His moves aren’t fancy or furious. He’s not incredibly fast. But he knows how to fight and he doesn’t give up. There’s a moment at 1:38 where he briefly stumbles over a broken rod, regains his bearings, and continues on to face the mob. Perfectly choreographed fight scenes are cool, but they don’t include moments like this, moments that reflect broken reality so perfectly. Atomic Blonde, though highly stylized and certainly choreographed, exudes a similar energy in its centerpiece fight scene. Some of it is courtesy of the sound design, but most of it stems from the length of the fight: this is how long it takes to defeat just two men in real life without a gun. A single punch or kick rarely knocks somebody out – usually it’s a morass of jabs, stabs, kicks, body slams, and tackles – until eventually your opponent doesn’t get up. Hard Boiled (1992) Hard Boiled, one of the oldest long-take fight scenes, has little in common with Atomic Blonde. But if there’s one aspect they both understand, it’s the value of elevators.
One-take scenes – particularly one-take action scenes – are tiring. They imbue a tension in the audience: things are happening in real-time, so we can’t look away. A new opponent could emerge from anywhere at any time. Thus the value of the elevator. It serves as a break for the characters and audience (phew, we can rest for a second), as well as a method for ratcheting up tension – who’s going to be waiting when those doors open? The safety of the elevators is countered by the claustrophobia. Our heroes have nowhere else to go but out those doors when they hear the *ding*. Hard Boiled wisely puts the elevator smack in the middle of its sequence, a perfectly timed respite that gives audiences a breather and simultaneously creates tension. Atomic Blonde switches gears, placing it toward the beginning. Rather than acting as a respite, it’s a preparation scene for both Theron and the audience. As the elevator slides up, she clicks of the safety on her gun, leans her head back against the wall, closes her eyes, and takes a deep breath. We do the same from the safety of our seats. We’re ready. *ding* Doors open, fight on.