If Wonder Woman proved that a lady can lead a superhero flick as well as a gentleman (better, if that gentleman is Ben Affleck), Atomic Blonde does the same for the action movie. Charlize Theron stars as Lorraine Broughton, an MI6 agent attempting to recover a list of covert operatives and track down a double agent in Cold War Berlin. It’s not an unfamiliar plot, but Atomic Blonde’s edgy style, breathlessly kinetic action sequences and Theron’s mix of irresistible glamour and implacable brutality set it apart from—and above—other recent entries in the genre.
Atomic Blonde is based on the graphic novel, The Coldest City, and was directed by David Leitch of John Wick fame.The movie does a great job delineating its circa-1989 milieu, from wardrobe to soundtrack to the bulky Commodore 64 computers used by East German hackers (in their downtime, they play Tetris). Lorraine’s neon-and-mirrors hotel room looks like a Patrick Nagel painting, while her platinum bob and leather outfits evoke icons of the decade such as Debbie Harry and Terri Nunn. She also rocks the coolest collection of boots ever committed to film, from studded ankle booties for visiting the morgue to thigh-high high heels, the better to kick Russian spies in the face with.
And, heaven knows, there is a lot of kicking. The action sequences in Atomic Blonde are creatively choreographed and become even more impressive when you realize Theron did almost all of her own stunts (apparently the insurance folks wouldn’t let her jump out of windows). An extended, barely-cut sequence in which she battles a group of thugs up and down stairs, through empty apartments and out onto the streets will likely appear in fight-scene montages for years to come.
Yet the fight scenes also have a visceral realism—toward the end of one brawl, Lorraine and her adversary can barely stand, but they keep trying to do each other in; the leading lady’s cuts and bruises get almost as many closeups as her face. As Lorraine, Theron has the same “only one person will survive this and it’s gonna be me” strength that animated her Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road, as she attacks her opponents with guns, knives, ropes, fists, feet, corkscrews, tire irons and hot plates. Gender notwithstanding, she’s one of the best action stars we have today and comes off far more dangerous and sexy than Tom Cruise or Matt Damon.
The rest of Atomic Blonde’s cast offer solid support, albeit with a bit more character and style than is the norm in actioners. James McAvoy plays a British agent who’s “gone feral” in Berlin, while Sofia Boutella is a novice French operative who falls into a relationship with Lorraine. Played with a reserve as icy as the cubes she tosses into her many glasses of vodka (seriously, people drink and smoke in this movie like it’s Barfly), Lorraine herself comes in with only a few shreds of backstory and remains enigmatic throughout the film, which some might find off-putting but, hell, isn’t that how James Bond has operated for 26 movies? Like Bond, she’s equally at home in the gutter and among the hoi polloi and, like Bond, everyone she encounters wants to do her or be her or both.
The flaw in Atomic Blonde is a plot that can become a bit too convoluted for its own good and the framing device of a debriefing sometimes feels awkward. The movie’s triple-twist ending doesn’t quite work, although it does set us up for a sequel, as virtually every movie does now with groan-inducing insistence. However, when it comes to Atomic Blonde, I say yes to the sequel—and another insane adventure full of brutal beatings and fabulous shoes.