Charlize Theron goes on a tear for the ages in Atomic Blonde, another pin on her action hero lapel after her ferocious turn as Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road.
As Lorraine Broughton, an undercover agent on a mission in Berlin in the late ’80s as the wall begins to fall, she showcases her ability to kick people through walls with the best of them. She also shows how to use a freezer door as a weapon.
Directed by David Leitch, one of the directors of the original John Wick and future director of Deadpool 2, Atomic Blonde pops with the same kind of kinetic energy as Wick when the bullets and kicks are flying. Also a legendary stuntman, Leitch knows how to make a hit look real, and the choreographed action scenes in this film stand as some of the year’s best. When Charlize lands a blow in this movie, you feel it in your face.
Based on the graphic novel The Coldest City, the film does drag at times, especially when Lorraine does the standard interrogation room narrative scenes with Toby Jones and John Goodman drilling her for answers. While it could’ve used some tightening in the edit room, the movie is very much worth wading through the shallow parts.
Lorraine tells her story in flashback as she hunts for a list containing nefarious info about herself and fellow agents, a list that could continue the Cold War for decades to come. Her hunt includes interactions with unorthodox agent David Percival (James McAvoy), somebody who mixes his espionage with partying and black market Jordache jeans trafficking.
Theron and McAvoy are good on screen together, and their dialogue scenes are some of the best that don’t involve teeth getting broken. As for the bone-crunching action, there’s a scene in this movie that rivals Logan for best action scene of the year. Leitch coordinates a battle that starts in a building and culminates with a car chase as if it were one shot, and it’s an exhaustive exercise in how to keep fighting while falling down stairs, getting shot and getting your face kicked in.
If the rest of the movie surrounding that scene were Theron and McAvoy gardening and sipping herbal teas while listening to a ball game on the radio, Atomic Blonde would still be worth seeing. It’s classically good.
McAvoy, having a great year with this and Split, has moved himself from amusing curio actor to heavy hitter in 2017. He’s a nut in this movie, as was the case in Split. He’s an actor willing to take some risks, and they are paying off. He also might win the award for keeping a cigarette in your mouth through a major ass kicking and strained dialogue delivery.
As good as he is, you don’t go to Atomic Blonde to see McAvoy. This is Theron’s vehicle, and she owns it in much the same way Keanu Reeves has taken his career to new levels with the John Wick films. Theron, an Academy Award-winning actress who can dramatically spar with the best of them, is a physical performer in league with the best of them. With this movie, she convinces you that neither Conor McGregor or Floyd Mayweather would stand a chance in the ring with her.
Late ’80s playlists are sure to spike on streaming services thanks to the film’s soundtrack, which includes David Bowie, Queen, Falco, ’Til Tuesday, the Clash and, quite notably, George Michael. (His “Father Figure” is put to astonishingly good use in that classic scene I mentioned above.) Leitch and company find some great ways to make the music a part of the film, and while I probably never need to hear “99 Luftballons” again, the presence of Siouxsie and the Banshees’ “Cities of Dust” is much appreciated.
The summer movie season is coming to a close, and while Atomic Blonde isn’t one of the summer’s best, it does have a couple of the summer’s best scenes. I’m not sure if there’s enough here to warrant another Atomic Blonde movie, but there’s definitely a call for more movies with Theron hitting people in the face with freezer doors. Or, just hitting and kicking people in general. She’s quite good at it.