All’s right with the supremely flashy, hyper-hyper stylized Cold War action thriller Atomic Blonde. That is: so long as it keeps its heroine—a two-fisted, icy bisexual MI6 spy played by Charlize Theron—in cartoony motion, dodging bullets, knives and fists, and beating the living bejesus out of counteragents, traitors and assorted violent KGB randos.
Theron is director David Leitch’s strongest suit; as killing machine Lorraine Broughton, she’s tasked, after the slaying of a vital undercover asset, with tracking down a stolen list of Brit and Russian intelligence agents—the McGuffin sought after by her opaque superior (Toby Jones) and a tough CIA boss (John Goodman). Though Broughton would rather handle things on her own, she must connect with ex-Berlin chief “gone feral” David Percival (James McAvoy, savoring yet another role as a flamboyant psycho). Percival has access to a man known as Spyglass (Eddie Marsan): an East German version of The 39 Steps’ “Mr. Memory” who can recite the entire list verbatim.
Since the movie is set in a James Bondish realm of spy vs. spy, everyone’s got an agenda and no one’s remotely trustworthy. But because the film has a ferocious heroine, and an erotically adventurous one at that, things feel renewed and fresh. A flirtation with a French spy (Sofia Boutella, leaving The Mummy in the dust) in a pickup scene in a bar (set to the Re-flex gem “The Politics of Dancing”) leads to a relationship that threads through the whole movie. It’s a choice that seems to reenergize the whole spy-game gambit.
Theron wraps herself in a succession of slick late ‘80s outfits and is often lit in neon-blue, a frosty franchise heroine-in-waiting who out-muscles bad guys and prowls the seedy Berlin underground to a synth-pop ‘80s soundtrack, all the while looking as determinedly expressionless as her line readings are monotone. Theron became an action movie icon in Mad Max: Fury Road; here, she’s like what Basic Instinct-era Sharon Stone would have looked like had she gone full-on Krav Maga.
Unfortunately, the film, adapted by Kurt Johnstad from Anthony Johnston and Sam Hart’s graphic novel The Coldest City, finds Leitch and company unsatisfied with delivering a barrelhouse thriller with some of the most kinetic, soul-satisfying action sequences in recent history. Leitch and Theron are about to become part of modern movie history, thanks to what feels like a 10-minute sequence in which Broughton fights off KGB agents up, down, in and around a building, all of it captured in insanely well-choreographed shots edited together to seem like one long, unbroken take. It’s so audacious that it earns spontaneous applause—a visceral action setpiece unlikely to be topped for a long while. And yes, we’re looking at you, both John Wick movies. (Not for nothing, Leitch, who’s also a stuntman, was an uncredited co-director of the first John Wick.) But Atomic Blonde wobbles when it piles on layer upon layer of thorny, labyrinthine John Le Carre-style plotting. It’s confusing, and the rest of the movie doesn’t pack the weight or the multidimensional characters necessary to justify it.
Still, if the blonde makes another appearance in a sequel, Theron is more than up to it, and she deserves better.
Read more of Stephen Rebello’s movie reviews here.