After Gal Gadot as “Wonder Woman” earlier this year (read my review here), it’s good to see another female action star who can kick ass — and that’s exactly what Charlize Theron does, repeatedly, in “Atomic Blonde.”
The movie takes place in East Berlin in the days before The Wall came down in November, 1989. She’s a British MI-6 agent who has to get an East German traitor to the west with secret information about Soviet spies. It’s all told in flashback, after the mission is over, as Charlize is debriefed by MI-6 official Toby Jones and CIA man John Goodman. As she stays cool and calm, their interrogation reminded me of the similar scene in “Basic Instinct” with Sharon Stone — except Charlize doesn’t expose herself. Those debriefing scenes, which add little to the plot, are totally unnecessary as a framing device for the rest of the story, which is exciting enough to have been told in linear fashion from start to finish.
Frankly, none of that matters. What drives “Atomic Blonde” is the ultra-cool style of Theron’s character, from her outfits to the way she walks to the way she handles everybody. Oh, yeah, there are amazing fight scenes, the kind where the guys with guns can’t possibly win against the woman who can spin and kick and punch. She uses any prop she can get her hands on, from a garden hose to a pot on a stove, with martial arts moves that look like they’re out of a Jackie Chan movie. They are the best I’ve seen since “The Bourne Identity,” and certainly better than anything in a recent James Bond movie.
The brilliance of the fight scenes should be no surprise, as “Atomic Blonde” was directed by David Leitch, who did some of the work on the first “John Wick” (another movie where the plot is completely secondary to the action sequences) after a career as a stuntman, doubling for Brad Pitt and Jean-Claude Van Damme.
Theron reportedly did a lot of her own fight/stunt work, and it’s impossible to tell when a stuntwoman took over. I’d bet that a lot of the bruises we see when she soothes her naked body in a bathtub full of ice weren’t just the work of the makeup crew.
James McAvoy plays the station chief in Berlin she works with on her mission. And that’s what this is, not a detective story but a spy saga — not a whodunit, but a how’s-she-going-to-do-it. The action is supplemented by a soundtrack full of 1980s tunes like Til Tuesday’s “Voices Carry,” Nena’s “99 Luftballons,” Bowie’s “Cat People,” Peter Schilling’s “Major Tom,” Falco’s “Der Komissar” (also by After The Fire). Along with “Baby Driver,” it’s one of the best soundtracks of the year and will probably get a lot of downloads on Spotify, iTunes, etc.
Despite a few flaws, I was impressed enough to give “Atomic Blonde” a 7.5 out of 10.
If it does well enough at the box office, it will likely give Theron a franchise she can return to again and again. I certainly wouldn’t want to be the executive who tells her no.