When we first meet Charlize Theron as Lorraine Broughton, she bears the appearance of someone who has just gone three rounds with Mike Tyson. Bruised and damaged – yet calmly steadfast – as her MI6 superior (Toby Jones) and a CIA representative (John Goodman) interrogate her, Lorraine begins to elaborate on what led up to this physical pummeling. As the camera focuses on Lorraine’s contusions, a brazen truth emerges: you should see the other guys.
Atomic Blonde – adapted from Antony Johnston’s graphic novel, The Coldest City – recaps Lorraine’s mission as an MI6 agent, ordered to Berlin in 1989 to identify those responsible for the murder of an undercover agent, as well as recover a list of intelligence operatives currently floating about. Lest we forget, a mysterious double agent known only as Satchel lurks somewhere in the shadows.
Typical espionage shenanigans ensue, as Lorraine partners up with disgraced former Berlin station chief David Percival (James McAvoy), and takes up sexy-time with Sandrine (Sofia Boutella), a novice French spy. McAvoy and Boutella function as little more than window dressing and loyalty testers, though they do admittedly spruce up the proceedings whenever afforded the chance to snag some screen time.
Drowning us in enough neon to force Sonny Crockett out of retirement, director David Leitch – half of the John Wick partnership – saturates his canvas with bright lights and an exuberant ’80s soundtrack that infuses enough bombastic glow that I was certain The Last Dragon himself would drop into frame. Though the characters are a bit thin and Leitch struggles with pushing the narrative forward in an engaging way each time he’s faced with bouts of exposition (or the riveting sight of watching Theron listen to surveillance tapes, a surprisingly mundane activity), when it comes to the visceral feel and attitude of Atomic Blonde, he has it dialed in. As soon as Leitch is allowed an opportunity to showcase his action sensibilities, just shut up and watch.
The combat here is as fluid as anything Keanu Reeves has dished out in any franchise, and the set-piece of watching Theron manage her own protect mission, straight out of a modern video game, is as energizing as anything ever seen on film. For several minutes, Leitch subjects us to a seemingly uncut take of lethal brutality where Joan Wick dispatches hordes of henchman utilizing every weapon and household item she can find. Plot schmot, give me more of THIS!
All that said, let’s face facts: Charlize Theron is who kicks the “Atomic” into the title. If one person is shocked – at this stage in Theron’s remarkable career – that she can swivel-kick the shit out of any man on screen, they haven’t been paying attention. I was already terrified of her after Mad Max: Fury Road and after her turn here, I’m ready for WITSEC. By the film’s conclusion, the name honestly even began to piss me off. Atomic Blonde feels isolated to women, sexist in nature. Lorraine Broughton isn’t a badass just because she’s a woman who can snap your spine with timely precision. She’s quite simply the scariest person currently roaming around in Mother Russia.
Atomic Blonde releases nationwide July 28, 2017
Starring Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, John Goodman
Written by Kurt Johnstad
Directed by David Leitch