‘Atomic Blonde,’ New-Wave Action With A Kick-Ass Heroine

The advertisements for Atomic Blonde paint the titular star, Charlize Theron, as the female John Wick. Maybe it’s because director David Leitch did uncredited work on John Wick and is well-versed in stunt choreography. And while revenge is at play, this espionage actioner weighs the consequences of actions as classified documents are sought after by the KGB, MI6, and the CIA. All the while the Berlin Wall is about to come crashing down harder than Humpty Dumpty after swilling Stoli, the Blonde’s drink of choice. What, you were expecting a martini?

The year is 1989. The setting: Berlin. The city is a powder keg as East/West tensions escalate. And MI6’s Lorraine Broughton (Theron) may just be the glycerin to ignite. She’s on a retrieval mission to get a rumored list that could expose every British agent. Her point of contact in Berlin is David Percival (James McAvoy), a fellow British operative who gets his hair styling tips from Sinead O’Connor and has copies of Hustler next to the works of Machiavelli.

With secret operatives of Allied nations also in Berlin, Lorraine finds herself in a Catch-22; a double-agent codenamed “Satchel” lurks in the shadows. Now she must get the list, expose a traitor, and do her best to survive. Nothing she can’t handle. Just give her vodka on the rocks, an endless supply of cigarettes, and a killer wardrobe.

Even if you didn’t know Atomic Blonde was based off a graphic novel (The Coldest City by Antony Johnston), the open credits should be a dead giveaway. The cityscape drips with neon – blues, pinks, and whites light up the screen – and the background noise is populated with ‘80s Euro pop (The Clash, Nena, Falco, and more). Sounds like Miami in Scarface, not Berlin. Then you see the snow, muted color palate (aside from nightclubs), armed guards and barricades, and Volvos. Lots of Volvos.

Music plays a huge part in setting the tone as it accompanies Lorraine’s investigation. Seeing that the local authorities are about to storm up the steps to the loft she is inspecting, Lorraine redirects herself and turns up a radio full blast. The song: George Michael’s “Father Figure.” Sorry, fellas. Daddy’s gone. But Lorraine can clean house. Without a gun she gets creative picking the closest object at her disposal, a yellow hose. Lassoing the officers back and forth, up and over, bashing heads into household appliances. Blood puddles the floor as the men are left unconscious, incapacitated.

John Wick had gun-fu artistry in overcoming the odds against him. Our heroine doesn’t always have such luxuries. So she improvises. Hands, elbows. Yakuza kicks. Hot plate. The brawls are taxing and leave her wounded and yet she persists. Lorraine is no cupcake MI6 agent. She makes Bond look like a bitch.

Atomic Blonde pulses with energy and director David Leitch assures there’s plenty of bone-cracking action. The highlight is watching Theron fight her way down a stairwell as she protects an asset known as “Spyglass” (Eddie Marsan). The pre-planning this scene took must have been weeks and the Stedicam operator should have received a hefty bonus; we track Lorraine in one unbroken shot. Wrap your head around that. One. Unbroken. Shot. Action fans can recall the hallway scenes in Oldboy and Netflix’s Daredevil, and damn if you don’t feel every blow Theron dishes out and receives. At one point she tumbles down the stairs and I’m still flummoxed with how the camera stays on her as she falls down and as she gets back up.

Visual fluidity is a beautiful thing if you can make it work. David Leitch does and the stunt choreography is jagged and raw, just like a fight should be. This isn’t poetry in motion. This is pound and stagger back up.

The stairwell will be the scene people will be talking about once they see Atomic Blonde. They’ll also be saying that Charlize Theron is undoubtedly this decade’s most iconic female action star. Bye, Angelina. Bye, Mila. Theron already stole the spotlight as Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road and was an icy menace in The Fate of the Furious. Combine the two and you have Lorraine Broughton. Theron’s commitment to character had her sustain injury on set (broken teeth) but the result may be well worth it as she may have her very own action franchise. While an Atomic Blonde/John Wick crossover may never happen, it doesn’t hurt to argue on who would win in a fight.

As for plot, that’s where we see some fraying. Lorraine is brought in for debriefing and is questioned by her superior (Toby Jones) as a high-ranking member of the CIA (John Goodman) sits and listens. Jumping from flashbacks and conversations – and Lorraine smoking like a chimney (she must go through at least a dozen cigs on screen) – the pegs start to fall into place. But the backstabbings and red herrings feel clumsy and disjointed.

Still, Atomic Blonde is the best kind of action eye candy. Great beat-em-up moments, stunt choreography, and pure fun. Charlize Theron is a commanding presence as the blonde you don’t want to screw with or over.

Der Kommissar is in town and her name is Lorraine Broughton. A kick-ass heroine in a new-wave era.

Director: David Leitch
Writer: Kurt Johnstad, based on “The Coldest City” graphic novel by Antony Johnston
Starring: Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, Toby Jones, John Goodman, Sofia Boutella, Eddie Marsan, Til Schweiger
Running Time: 115 minutes
Rating: R (for sequences of strong violence, language throughout, and some sexuality/nudity)

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