Charlize Theron is quite atomic in blonde in Atomic Blonde, but she (and the film itself) is much more the sum of its moniker. It is a wham, bam, thank you ma’am actioner that gives the Oscar winner (and the audience) a whole lot of opportunities to have a whole lot of fun.
Set in the final days of the Cold War in Berlin as the divide that separates East Berlin and West Berlin, The Wall, is about to come down. Lost in that opportunistic feeling that permeated the city that was on the verge of being unified for the first time in decades is the fact that two world powers — The Soviets and The Americans — and their allies were still entrenched in a battle to the death that at that time, was immune to the uprising on the streets.
In the middle of all of this we find Theron’s Lorraine Broughton, a British MI6 spy who is charged with crisscrossing the borders of East and West Berlin in search of a list of Western spies that if lands in the hands of the Russians, could be catastrophic. In her way seems to be everyone and anyone who has their own interests with that coveted list. Helping her in this effort is a Berlin-based MI6 agent, David Percival (James McAvoy). He is very local, right on down to his shaved head and punkish choice of attire.
The story is laid out in a manner that we have seen many times, particularly in this spy thriller genre. Theron is being debriefed at London headquarters by her MI6 superior (Eric Gray, played by Toby Jones) and a CIA officer (Emmett Kurzfeld, played by John Goodman). She is relaying what happened in the German capital in pieces as we get to experience it as the story zigzags from the present to the recent — and volatile — past. It mostly works in this situation, but still feels a bit tired in terms of a means with which to lay out the plot points. Occasionally it is jolting, in that it pulls you out of a situation in Berlin that needs to continue. Yet other times it works because it’s nice to take a breath and go inside an interrogation room after a 20-minute action sequence (the one we’re thinking of is one of the best of the year, if not of recent memory). This piecemeal way of delivering the plot is a mixed bag and at this point in time in cinema history, it is kind of tired. In this particular film, a linear method of delivering the action, thrills, drama, suspense and romance could have totally worked and actually served the film much better.
Still, going beyond those slight interruptions to the flow, Atomic Blonde proves something that has long been said about actors and their work. If it appears they are enjoying themselves, then so too will the audience. That is most certainly the case here because Theron (McAvoy for that matter, too) is having an utter blast splitting heads, busting butts and generally kicking ass on screen in a way that comes at us too infrequently by a female in the lead.
That’s the headline here, the action.
With his team, director David Leitch has crafted a series of fight sequences that are envelope-pushing in the same way that John Wick achieved. There are also chases, both by foot and car that are white-knuckle inducing. What’s incredible too is how one can “feel” each punch, car collision, tumble down the stairs and gunshot in the most visceral manners. This is a film that fires from the gut and that is where the viewer experiences it the most.
Theron is electric. She is the big draw here because this is a character that she slips into effortlessly and inhabits explosively. Witnessing her at work in this environ with this character is a movie miracle. Given the international uncertainty that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall, we hope that there are a few more installments of the lively Lorraine in the future that have a bit more of a laser focus when it comes to plot. Between the action and the actress dolling it, Atomic Blonde begs for more.
McAvoy is his usual awesome self. He is a character that seems to have given into the decadence of the era in this city and embodies it in a way that it is as if he is an emblem for a dying way of life. In many ways, he is exactly that. His character becomes a dinosaur right before our eyes and through McAvoy’s performance, we get a command of what it was like for an army of spies whose services were not quite needed anymore in a manner that was previously.
Based on the graphic novel The Coldest City, Atomic Blonde does not break any new boundaries in terms of plot. These are all elements of the spy milieu that have been explored before. But, this is summer, where audiences can be a little more forgiving a film if it doesn’t tick all the boxes it conceivably should. The flick is a good time and in the middle of this summer that has been more “meh” than marvelous at the movies, Atomic Blonde certainly goes down as one of the good ones. It may not be fully explosive, but it sure does pack a punch and set off quite a few sparks.