In the face of a dearth of mainstream, female-fronted action films and thrillers, Charlize Theron has admirably delivered instantly memorable characters for the better part of two decades. From her Academy Award-winning turn in Patty Jenkins' Monster to her now iconic performance as Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road, she has consistently shown us that she's one of the most committed actresses alive. Building off of that reputation, David Leitch's Atomic Blonde is Theron's long-awaited foray into the spy genre, and while the film's story pretty much falls apart from the get go, the sheer amount of skill on display in its technical direction and performances make it worth checking out.
Told through a series of flashbacks, Atomic Blonde chronicles a ten-day period leading to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Ahead of that landmark occasion, we meet up with elite MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) on a mission to recover a secret list of allied agents stolen by a KGB assassin when a former MI6 colleague (and lover) turns up dead. Along the way, Broughton finds herself forced to forge uneasy alliances with British agent David Percival (James McAvoy) and a mysterious French woman (Sofia Boutella) as she navigates Berlin's deadly, stylish, and endlessly cool underworld to accomplish her mission and get out alive. That's the core thesis of this film, but it only gets murkier from there.
Although Atomic Blonde comes packed to the brim with delightfully colorful characters, few can compare to Berlin itself. In fact, one could easily argue that Atomic Blonde is a two-hour love letter to the gritty German capital city. Setting the film against the backdrop of the final days of the Cold War is a stroke of genius, as the entire city (East and West alike) constantly feels like a powder keg on the verge of exploding. The scenes that take place in Berlin maintain a consistent aura of suspense and dread, but that tension often feels undercut by the film's insistence on picking up with Broughton in the "present day" as she recounts her flashbacks. It's an interesting narrative choice, but it sometimes seems like the movie opts for the flare at the expense of the drama.
That said, when I say Atomic Blonde is a stylish film, I sincerely mean it. Atomic Blonde is unquestionably beautiful, and David Leitch does a phenomenal job with regards to adding warmth, vibrancy, and color to a city and era that's often depicted in dull shades of gray and brown. Couple that with a synth-centric 1980s soundtrack (that admittedly borders on abrasive at times), and you're left with a film that you're not likely to find anywhere else this summer.
That sense of style and spectacle goes double for Atomic Blonde's action sequences, which are easily some of the best that we have seen all year. David Leitch brings the same technical prowess to Lorraine Broughton's fist fights that he did for Keanu Reeves' John Wick, and as a result, Atomic Blonde never fails to deliver refreshingly bone-crunching melees. I hesitate to draw too many comparisons to other franchises, but I would go so far as to say that Atomic Blonde's fights are considerably more intense than anything seen in the John Wick films because they feel less choreographed, and Ms. Broughton isn't framed as a force of nature. She is simply a natural brawler with an incredible pain tolerance and a willingness to do anything to get the job done.
On that note, no discussion about the action in Atomic Blonde would be complete without giving special credit to the film's central "stairway fight," that features prominently in the trailers. Without delving too far into spoiler territory, I can at the very least confirm that it is unquestionably one of the best fight sequences ever committed to film (western film, at least), and a master class in long form action storytelling. Seriously, that one scene alone is worth the price of admission, just to see it on a big screen.
Of course, for all of the accolades that we can heap upon Atomic Blonde, none of this would be possible without the central performance that grounds the entire film. Charlize Theron absolutely kills it (often literally) in this movie, and Lorraine Broughton offers her a chance to unleash the bonafide action star that we have come to know her as over the years. Every muscle in her body commits to the film's many action sequences, and Theron sells Broughton's jaded and mysterious pain (with a healthy dose of sex appeal as well) in a way that we haven't seen in a movie since Daniel Craig's earliest days as James Bond in Casino Royale.
That's not to say that the other performances in the movie aren't good, as well. James McAvoy provides his typically reliable charm (with a nice amount of slimy despicability for good measure), and Sofia Boutella once again proves that she's one of Hollywood's most underutilized actresses. However, this is ultimately Theron's show, and she owns every single one of her scenes. If there's one real complaint to have about her, it's that she's a bit too mysterious for the bulk of the film's runtime, and the story doesn't give us enough reasons to root for her aside from the fact that she's obviously the protagonist.
However, as much as we want to heap praise upon Atomic Blonde's style and impressive lead performance, it still cannot escape from the fact that it's borderline incomprehensible for most of its runtime. The basic story is simple enough, but character motivations never really feel firmly fleshed out in a meaningful way. With so many characters running around, (and so many of them trying to masquerade as something they're not) the film's numerous double and triple crosses sometimes border on Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull level of ridiculousness. It all makes sense at the very end, but it's a headache that makes you feel as though Lorraine herself just smashed a hot plate across your head.
At the end of the day, we cannot deny the sheer amount of technical skill and commitment on full display in Atomic Blonde. My only real gripe is that the film's story suffers as a result of the tradeoff. If you're an action nut with an affinity for technical movie magic, then Atomic Blonde will almost certainly deliver, but those looking for a coherent story should look elsewhere.
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