Atomic Blonde (2017)
115 min., rated R.
If Keanu Reeves gets his own action vehicle to kick ass, so should Charlize Theron, and that she does with “Atomic Blonde,” a stylishly fun, hyper-cool action film with so much electric verve and energy that there’s no time for character depth or substance. Director David Leitch, one of the stuntmen turned directors behind 2014’s “John Wick,” has such a way with fight choreography and knows the importance of staging an action sequence in a clean fashion where the meticulous choreography doesn’t get lost in a million cuts. Watching the statuesque Theron doing a lot of punching, kicking, and shooting and taking it all as well, cued up to a nonstop, consistently pleasurable ‘80s Europop soundtrack, is all one really needs. Who knew these two tastes would go great together?
Based on the graphic novel “The Coldest City” by Anthony Johnston and Sam Hart, “Atomic Blonde” takes place in 1989, Berlin, just before the wall comes down. MI6 Agent Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) is sent to Germany’s capital to recover “the list,” which contains information on every undercover Allied operative, including sought-after double agent “Satchel” whose identity still hasn’t been exposed. She joins forces with local agent David Percival (James McAvoy), of whom she grows suspicious, to meet up with Spyglass (Eddie Marsan) and get him (and his family) out of East Berlin safely. Lorraine will just have crack a few skulls along the way.
Missing the tiniest bit of an emotional core to crank it up a notch, “Atomic Blonde” is everything it promises and needs to be. Told with a framework involving the black-eyed Lorraine being debriefed in London by MI6 superior Eric Gray (Toby Jones) and CIA agent Emmett Kurzfeld (John Goodman), the cloak-and-dagger story is labyrinthine in its flashback structure, but it still isn’t remarkable or even as engaging as it could be. No one will really remember the writing by screenwriter Kurt Johnstad (2014’s “300: Rise of an Empire”), despite a twisty reveal in the last minute. It’s all merely an excuse to see our female star kick ass—she smokes and struts a lot, too—and not unlike any mission in any other spy thriller, the story finds a McGuffin in “the list,” which might as well be a briefcase, or microfilm, or codes. Likewise, the film doesn’t have interest in the Cold War setting’s sociopolitical climate, and Lorraine’s relationships are merely a means to an end, but it does have a sexy lesbian scene between Lorraine and naïve French photographer Delphine (Sofia Boutella).
Continuing her repertoire of playing strong women who don’t need a man’s help, Charlize Theron is in top form as Lorraine Broughton. The actress is awesome all by herself, and in playing a formidable badass, she gets to be spectacular by performing 98% of her own stunts, even if Lorraine has little meat to her. The film's dynamic action prowess is key, too, as director David Leitch lets the action play out to relentless, exhilarating effect. Without front-loading any of their big guns, Leitch and Theron pull off no less than four standout action set-pieces that are all inventively contained and brutal with a rhythm that makes one’s jaw drop every time. Setting foot in Berlin, Lorraine improvises with one red stiletto heel to fight a driver and his passenger in the backseat of a Mercedes before flipping it. Lorraine takes on around six Berlin policemen in an apartment with a hose and other handy kitchen supplies before jumping off the balcony, all while George Michael’s “Father Figure” blares on a tape deck, and later shares bruises with the KGB while doing hand-to-hand combat behind an East Berlin cinema screen playing Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Stalker.” There is also a staggering extended sequence in another apartment that begins in the stairwell and goes on from there, all staged to look as if it was shot in a single take.
Fueled by ‘80s mood that’s hard to resist, from the neon spray-painted font of the opening credits, to the use of music, “Atomic Blonde” will not be accused of having no style. The soundtrack is killer, sampling everything from New Order’s “Blue Monday,” Nena’s “99 Luftballoons,” The Clash’s “London Calling,” 'Til Tuesday’s “Voices Carry,” Depreche Mode’s “Behind the Wheel,” to David Bowie & Queen’s “Under Pressure.” Nitpickers will complain that some of the music choices are too on the nose, but they’d have something to complain about if the songs were random. Like a response to the tedium of joyless, overly cut action films, “Atomic Blonde” is the real deal, and the prospect of Lorraine Broughton trotting the globe on more missions is actually exciting. Bring on “Atomic Blonde 2: Down Under."