Charlize Theron kicks spy ass in Atomic Blonde (review)

Atomic Blonde
It’s not that surprising that Charlize Theron has appeared in almost no romantic comedies over the past two decades. Despite being one of the most beautiful women in Hollywood for the better part of 20 years, Theron projects a smoldering intensity, bordering on menace, that would not fit the typical mold of “love interest” that needs to be won over by James Marsden. Rather, what we really want to see Theron doing is take that concentrated strength and project it on her enemies. Something she does with great aplomb in her latest action film, Atomic Blonde.

First things first, despite the action-packed trailer and the tidy and clever nickname of “Jane Wick” that this film has earned, Atomic Blonde is a completely different beast. Whereas John Wick’s expertly choreographed scenes of violence are almost balletic in their movements, Atomic Blonde is just as expertly choreographed action sequences are visceral and raw.  That’s not to say that Theron as MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton doesn’t kick ass. But rather, she generally gets as good as she gives (though she gives plenty). Fights in the film are extreme, and incredibly personal, bringing to the violence to the foreground and leaving little to the viewer’s imagination.

Directed by David Leitch (who was an uncredited director on John Wick), the film expertly melds a cat and mouse mystery/thriller with the aforementioned fights to create something that elevates it above a simple action flick. Set in Cold War era Germany, the film has Theron’s secret agent being sent to Berlin recover a list of all the world’s secret agents from the hands of a KGB agent. Aiding her on this mission is field agent David Percival (James McAvoy), an MI6 agent who has spent the majority of his career in the Berlin field office. She is also there to discover the identity of an MI6 double agent, Satchel, someone who has eluded capture and identification and is leaking British secrets to the Russians.

The movie opens with Theron emerging from a bathtub filled with ice, likely to numb the bruises and cuts that cover her body. Her mission to Berlin is told via flashback as Broughton narrates the events of the past week to a cabal of suits from MI6 and the CIA, including CIA boss Emmett Kurtzfeld (John Goodman) and her MI6 handler Eric Gray (Toby Jones). This form of storytelling, of course, can result in some potentially unreliable narration. The action bounces back and forth between East and West Berlin, as Broughton attempts to recover the list before it falls into the wrong hands.

Along the way, she encounters French operative Delphine (Sophia Boutella), who has her own motives for being in Berlin, as well as various KGB agents who are determined to cut her visit to Berlin short. But as she begins to delve deeper into the mystery of the list, she begins to uncover layer upon layer of deception, until it’s unclear what anyone’s motives are. About the only certainty in the whole film is that everyone has their own agenda.

But don’t let the twists and turns of the noirish plot fool you. This is still an action movie first. And here is where the film truly shines. Although Theron has proven her action bona fides in movies like Mad Max: Fury Road, I don’t think we’ve ever seen her quite as lethal as when she dispatches with enemies using an array of kicks, punches, as well as whatever else she can grab as a weapon, including a hose, an electric hot plate, and a house key.

Adding to the poetry of these fight scenes is a mesmerizing soundtrack that pulls from a list of notable ’80s hits include 99 Luftballons, Killer Queen, and Under Pressure, to name just a few. These scenes slowly progress in intensity and scope before culminating in a breathtaking fight set in a Berlin apartment where Broughton must protect a Stasi agent from multiple KGB goons. The 20-minute scene includes uninterrupted two-minute takes of Theron fighting off men from all angles. It is a masterful sequence that is awe-inspiring in both its scale as well as its brutality.

Theron is wonderful in her role here as a woman of few words, who speaks with her hand-to-hand combat and gunplay more than any words. McAvoy is also excellent as Broughton’s secret agent tour guide to “the way things work” in Berlin. He exudes an easy charm that belies his hidden agenda. Boutella is a beauty but doesn’t have too much to work with and ultimately ends up being more eye candy than substance.

Meanwhile, Goodman, a welcome addition to nearly any film, steals the few scenes that he is in. But this is ultimately Theron’s show, and she carries the weight of the film throughout, both in her debriefing scenes after the mission is completed, and the fight scenes throughout. Theron radiates a forbidding danger that lurks just beneath the surface as if she is able to turn from radiant beauty to killing machine at a moment’s notice.

Final Reaction

It would be easy to lump Atomic Blonde into the same group as all the other man (or woman) on a mission action films that have cropped up in recent years. But to do so sells it short in what the film is trying to accomplish.  There is an arc to both the plot, as well as the action. The stakes start out small and ramp up as Theron gets closer to the truth.

The early fights feel almost like a warm up to the climactic battles to come. In defining Atomic Blonde I struggle to say whether it is a mystery/thriller with superb action scenes or an action film with a central mystery attached. And that is a compliment in its own. In the hands of less talented directors and actors, trying to meld these two genres would result in both falling a bit flat. Yet in the case of Atomic Blonde, the end result is a perfect balance of the two.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Atoms

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