It’s refreshing that we’re beginning to hit a point where a female action star’s gender no longer feels like a complete novelty; I don’t have to open this review of Atomic Blonde with something inane like, “Finally, a woman who kicks ass!” because in a post-Wonder Woman world we can just skip to the part where I tell you how she kicks ass. In this case, the answer to that question is: very stylishly.
Set in 1989, just before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Atomic Blonde follows MI-6 operative Lorraine Braughton ( Charlize Theron) as she’s sent into Berlin to investigate the death of a colleague and retrieve sensitive information from Soviet hands. Naturally, this does not go according to plan (when has a spy movie ever run smoothly?), and Lorraine must decide which of her fellow spies are worth trusting and which might be trying to sell her out to the KGB. And true to what you’d expect from her track record of movies like Mad Max: Fury Road, Fate of the Furious, and Aeon Flux, boy oh boy does Theron ever bring the pain in this one.
It probably won’t surprise you to learn that, like most every film or TV show these days, this movie is based on a graphic novel: The Coldest City by Antony Johnston and artist Sam Hart. Although the plot twists remain consistent, the movie is stylistically very different from its source material; instead of a tense black-and-white espionage thriller, it’s now a pulse-pounding action flick drenched in neon-colored new wave/post-punk aesthetics, with a lovingly irreverent synthpop soundtrack to match. Seriously, you haven’t lived until you’ve watched a fight scene set to George Michael’s “Father Figure.”Speaking of fights, there are a lot of them in this movie, and each is better than the last. Fans of director David Leitch will most likely be reminded of his previous work on John Wick. Like Keanu Reeves, Charlize Theron is performing most of her own stunts and isn’t afraid to get utterly wrecked in the process (seriously, she broke several teeth during filming and kept right on going). But don’t let people tell you that Lorraine Broughton is the “female John Wick,” because she’s plenty compelling on her own accord. If I were going to compare her to anyone, I’d say she’s what you’d get if Debbie Harry and David Bowie gave birth to a daughter who knew how to throw men twice her size down entire flights of stairs.
It also doesn’t hurt that Theron has some very talented co-stars to work with in the moments she’s not trying to beat the living daylights out of KGB agents. James McAvoy plays David Percival, a British colleague who’s embraced the punk-rock Berlin lifestyle; Bill Skarsgard (that’s the new Pennywise the Clown for those of you playing at home) is Lorraine’s East Berlin contact; Eddie Marsan is a defecting Stasi officer who needs to get out of the Soviet-controlled city alive; Toby Jones plays Lorraine’s superior, and John Goodman plays a CIA operative.
But the biggest highlight is Sofia Boutella as French agent Delphine LaSalle, and not just because she’s the primary love interest; she also brings a vulnerability and earnestness to her character that gives her relationship with Lorraine some surprising emotional weight. Normally comic-to-film adaptations take bisexual women and turn them straight (hi Mystique, how are the X-Men lately?), so props to Atomic Blonde for doing the complete opposite. Admittedly, the camera feels a little too voyeuristic at times, but at least the fight scenes are never overtly sexualized, which would have been a far more egregious crime. I can forgive and even encourage a little bit of cheesecake as long as I’m still getting the sleek stunt choreography I came for.
So high were my expectations, in fact, that it took Atomic Blonde a little longer to completely blow me away than I assumed it would. The first half is fun and visually very pleasing, but not particularly gripping; it’s not until later that the movie finally delivers a real knockout punch, in the form of a breathtaking seven-minute-long hallway fight that I’ve thought about at least once a day since last week’s screening. Atomic Blonde might not be a game-changer, but it’s an incredibly solid outing that will definitely rattle around in your head for a while once it’s done. On a related note, does anybody know where I can buy a white leather trench coat?
Rating: 4 out of 5 burritos
Images: Focus Features