While stuntman-turned-director David Leitch may be best known for his work on John Wick (and he’s also been tapped to helm the upcoming Deadpool 2), throughout his career he’s specialized in delivering all kinds of incredible action sequences for nearly 20 years. So while it may be easy to connect (on paper) the recent hit actioner starring Keanu Reeves and Leitch’s latest, Atomic Blonde, featuring the always badass Charlize Theron destroying bad guys all over Germany in the late 1980s, the latter confidently and brazenly goes all out, raising the bar for action movies and proving once again that blondes really do get to have all the fun.
The setting for Atomic Blonde is 1989. The Berlin Wall is on the verge of being taken down, and tensions are running high on both the west and eastern sides of Germany, as a list of spies has fallen into the wrong hands, and, if released, could lead to a total breakdown of government agencies for countries all around the world. Enter MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron), who is sent to retrieve the report. Her only contact on the ground is a station chief named David Percival (James McAvoy), a snarky agent who seems like he’s always up to no good (he spends a good amount of time peddling “forbidden items” like Jordache jeans and whiskey to the East Germans).
Knowing there’s really no one she can trust other than herself on this mission, it’s up to Lorraine to get the list back, relying only on her own cunning and keen ability to dispatch anyone who happens to get in her way.
An icy-hued, breakneck spy thriller with ’80s synth-pop flowing through its veins, Atomic Blonde is the perfect showcase for someone with Theron’s set of talents: an actress who’s a force of nature dramatically, but can also kick some major ass right alongside dudes twice her size. That being said, don’t expect Lorraine to break out some Matrix-style moves in Atomic Blonde, as Theron plays her part firmly rooted in realism. Lorraine feels every punch, kick, and bullet, her character’s physical weariness often splayed across her face as she fights for survival.
As far as the action sequences go, Atomic Blonde’s choreography is among some of the best I’ve seen in years (there’s a fight on a flight of stairs that rivals anything in The Raid 2, which is easily my favorite action effort of the last decade), and Theron handles the physicality of her role with confident and aggressive fluidity. The script itself is admittedly pretty thin, but the Oscar-winning actress gives Lorraine a lot of depth beyond just the material she is given to work with (the scenes of her dealing with the corporal punishment she puts herself through all in the name of justice are haunting, and they say so much about who Lorraine is without ever uttering a single word).
McAvoy delivers typically strong work in Atomic Blonde, and we also get a few other great supporting performances from Sofia Boutella as a French agent Lorraine gets involved with, as well as the always great Toby Jones and John Goodman (Eddie Marsan from Ray Donovan was also another surprise). On a visual level, Atomic Blonde truly feels like it was ripped from the pages of the grahic novel it is based upon (The Coldest City by Antony Johnston and Sam Hart). Sure, I know the original material was all in black and white, but the way DP Jonathan Sela frames out key moments (particularly in the scenes when Lorraine is being debriefed by Jones and Goodman’s characters) gives Atomic Blonde a slick coolness that’s perfect for the material and reflective of how her job often leaves Lorraine isolated from the rest of humanity.
Of course, we get some blazingly bold moments of neon in Leitch’s film, particularly while Lorraine is deep into her mission, and they make for a brilliant juxtaposition against the backdrop of a Cold War-era Germany, when the country was still divided and political discord would often evolve into moments of anarchist violence.
It may not be the deepest modern action film we’ve seen, but Theron absolutely fricking rules in Atomic Blonde. Her sheer willingness to give no less than 120% in each and every scene earns the film some big points with me based on that alone. Leitch’s new wave spy thriller features some of the most brutally realistic hand-to-hand action sequences I’ve seen in some time, and while it may get a little too convoluted for its own good by the finale, I don’t feel like I ever truly lived until I watched Theron beat the hell out of a group of grown men with a rubber hose while George Michael’s “Father Figure” blares throughout the whole ordeal. So badass.
Movie Score: 3.5/5
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