The Cold War has never looked sexier as Charlize Theron literally bears all in the ultra slick actioner “Atomic Blonde.”
Feeling very much like something of the 1980s infused with an even more retro but en vogue martial arts flair, Director David Leitch (the uncredited half of the “John Wick” team) attacks the graphic novel series “The Coldest City” with unabashed, spirited cool. The story has MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton (Theron) dispatched to Berlin on the eve of the fall of the Wall. She’s tasked with retrieving a list of double agents hidden in a wristwatch.
This list, a typical espionage movie device, contains names and information that could upset the thaw in superpower relations. As familiar as this sounds, and it is familiar, the film is none-the-less fresh given the ferocity of the action set pieces and impeccable performances. “Atomic Blonde” is certainly a heck of an entertaining picture.
The cast is impressive. While the film is led by Theron, more on her later, we also get a superbly sleazy James McAvoy playing flawed MI6 agent David Percival. The Brit’s man in Berlin, Percival keeps you guessing, and McAvoy has fun with the various wardrobe changes one of which has him donning a East German officer’s coat and hat as he makes his way from East to West.
John Goodman and Toby Jones play spy masters of sorts that interrogate Broughton. The story is largely told in flashback as Broughton briefs Goodman’s CIA Agent Emmett Kurzfeld and MI6’s Eric Gray (Jones) as to her experiences in Berlin. Broughton sits in a sound-proof chamber, reminiscent of something from “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” and narrates the story. Their edgy conversations help structure the film.
Leitch works from a screenplay by Kurt Johnstad (“300”) who smartly uses ground zero of the end of the Cold War as an amazing set piece. But as the opening title card graphic rudely reminds us, this is not a movie about those events. However, so much of the time period is on display, one can’t help but want to learn more about the fall of the Wall, kind of like last week’s “Dunkirk” had many Googling the WWII evacuation. “Atomic Blonde” teases us with historical archived footage and a juke box score that acts as a pop culture way, way back machine.
The musical score is thick with hits of the ‘80s timed perfectly to various action sequences. One particular car chase is really marvelous on all levels especially the lush use of a particular tune. In a way, Leitch’s reliance on music rivals Edgar Wright’s attempt at creating the musical action genre in “Baby Driver.” Still, Wright made the music part of the narrative, whereas Leitch uses the music more as a editing device, cutting on cue. Both films deliver exquisite action ballet.
Then there’s Theron. We meet her character early as she uncomfortably lounges in an ice bath. Understandably stripped nude, the 41 year-old is a feast for the eyes and the makeup work that covers her fantastic body with bruises enhances her fearless characterization. She’s a sexy woman, no doubt, but Theron’s intent is to prove that Broughton is a skilled brute of immense physicality combined with uncanny intellectual prowess.
Theron’s performance isn’t just all action but one of layered intensity mixed with sexuality that has been ordinarily reserved for the guys. This film makes a strong case for Theron as the next James Bond, a move that could be mustered possibly without making gender the primary focus. Theron’s Broughton might not just be able to kick your ass, but she might actually be smarter than you as well.
The teenage fanboy in me whole-hearted endorsed “Atomic Blonde” even as I certainly recognized the manipulative nature of the exploitation in the narrative. Leitch trades well on Theron’s features permitting the camera to leer almost uncomfortably. And the constant action might exhaust some viewers who want a breather. But for respite such viewers should look to some of the performances like that of Eddie Marsan who plays a key informant named Spyglass. A couple weeks ago, I reviewed “The Exception” where Marsan played a chilling Heinrich Himmler. Here he’s great giving us the kind of human expressions that help break up the tension created by all the frantic action.
“Atomic Blonde” is a killer, explosive, thrill ride.