Charlize Theron has kicked some serious butt in action movies throughout her career, including “Aeon Flux”, “Hancock”, “Snow White & the Huntsman” (and its much-less entertaining spin-off) and most recently “The Fate of the Furious”. And diehard fans of “Mad Max: Fury Road” haven’t stopped drooling over her work in that reboot since it was released more than two years ago.
Now comes the darkest (in tone) of them all, “Atomic Blonde”, with Theron portraying another aggressively mischievous character. This film has the potential to be the highest-grossing movie ever for Focus Features, a studio that usually distributes live-action and stop-motion animation dramas, many of which become Awards Season contenders. Focus clearly had a reason for getting behind this adaptation of a 2012 graphic novel (The Coldest City) about a secret agent heroine.
Theron plays MI6’s Lorraine Broughton. She’s sent to Berlin on a mission to retrieve a list containing the names of all the agents who operated for Britain and the US during the Cold War. It’s 1989, the Berlin Wall is coming down, and both East and West Berlin are in chaos. If the list gets into the wrong hands, everyone on it (including Broughton herself) is as good as dead. Her guide upon arrival is fellow agent David Percival (played by James McAvoy). Don’t expect these two to fall in love. It’s not that kind of movie.
Along with the Brits and the Americans, the Russians and the French want the list. And each side will kill anyone and everyone from the other sides to get it. And everyone, it seems, wants Broughton dead.
This role may be Theron’s most physically demanding since her Oscar-winning performance in 2003’s “Monster”. “Atomic Blonde” features an ultra-violent 12-minute sequence that’s one continuous shot (adding to the growing list of movies in the past 3 years, clearly inspired by “Birdman”, that have used this device). Theron does all her own stunt work in this scene. It’s an impressive display of tenacity, and choreography – as are the majority of the film’s chases and other bloody hand-to-hand confrontations.
“Atomic Blonde” continues the musical lead of “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” and “Baby Driver”, as practically every second of the film is covered by a library of retro hits. This time it’s late 80s Euro Pop. If this trend continues, all composers of original soundtracks will soon be out of jobs.
The overall style, from director David Leitch (one of Hollywood’s most prolific stuntmen/coordinators) is electric and creative. However, I couldn’t help but get distracted by its same old/same old story. The narrative POV is from a bruised Lorraine at a closed-door meeting following her mission, with her retelling her adventures. No spoiler here, as the framework is presented to us just minutes in. This device is as tired as Theron must’ve felt after that non-stop 12-minute sequence.
And how many double-agent, triple-agent, secrets, lies and national security movies can we get without all of them just becoming derivative? Tack-on the multiple disguises and wardrobe changes and “Atomic Blonde” feels way too outdated. Thankfully, things do get more interesting in the second half, so stick with it if (like me) you find yourself on the verge of checking-out.
Bottom line: If you’re into this genre you’ll enjoy “Atomic Blonde”’s edgy throwback vibe. If not, you’ll still appreciate the craftsmanship and commitment on full display from both Theron and Leitch, though the substance will leave you a little cold.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, “Atomic Blonde” gets a C+.
Running Time: 115 min.