Why has it taken so long to give Charlize Theron a good action film to call her own?
Don’t get me wrong – she’s so tremendous in Mad Max: Fury Road that her Furiosa pretty much steals the show from the titular character. But other attempts to put her in an action film have, to put it kindly, floundered. Aeon Flux was just a wasted opportunity, and The Fate of the Furious didn’t even put her in a car. Thanks to David Leitch, garnering his first directorial credit here after an uncredited co-directing role on John Wick, Theron is let loose to finally shine on her own as an action star, and she does not disappoint, even if the film itself doesn’t always live up to what she’s doing.
At the end of the Cold War in Berlin, a list of operatives is up for grabs. After an MI6 agent is found in the river, Lorraine Broughton (Theron) is sent to find the list and rescue a Soviet double agent known as Spyglass (Eddie Marsan). She’s paired with David Percival (James McAvoy), an MI6 agent who’s “gone native” after spending years in East Berlin. As Lorraine makes her way through both sides of Berlin, which is teeming with energy over the impending unification of the city, she also strikes up a connection to French agent Delphine (Sofia Boutella). The story is told largely in flashbacks by a bruised Lorraine, to both her MI6 superior (Toby Jones) and a CIA official (John Goodman) who witnesses some of the events that go down in Berlin.
So that’s the plot, but feel free to ignore it. Atomic Blonde does for large stretches. Like John Wick, Atomic Blonde’s best features are its artfully crafted fight scenes, and the overall coolness of the film’s visual style, with the occasional bits of snappy dialogue and plenty of shots of the hero/heroine looking fantastic. With its setting in 1989 Berlin, the film actually goes one better in establishing a chilly visual palette and synth-driven 80s soundtrack. Atomic Blonde is based on a French graphic novel called “The Coldest City,” and that title fits with the film’s aesthetic.
And the fighting. Oh, the fighting. There’s the occasional bit of shaky-cam used in the fight sequences, but Leitch is a veteran stuntman, and he wants the intricate choreography of the fight sequences to be seen clearly. Every punch from Lorraine is felt, and every blow she takes is clearly heard. The extended fight scenes culminate with an eight-minute, single-take action sequence that starts in a stairwell and ends on the streets of Berlin in a go-for-broke car chase.
Through it all, it’s clear that Theron is having a blast. She plays ice-cold badass well, and that’s the attitude she brings to Lorraine. Watching her as the film goes on is remarkable, too – she’s armed with a number of stunning outfits, drawing a surprising amount of attention to herself for someone who’s supposed to be a spy, but with every fight, she’s visibly a bit more bruised, until that eight-minute fight sequence leaves her looking like a beautiful wreck (watch, and that will make sense).
If you’re looking for a film with a strong narrative, you may want to look elsewhere. But if you’re looking for a truly kickass film this summer, Atomic Blonde is the way to go. It’s a bold, gorgeous film that will leave you begging for more.