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Atomic Blonde is fond of its ice cubes. David Leitch’s secret agent thriller introduces us to the MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron), full of bruises, soaking in a bathtub. She emerges, tosses a couple in a glass, and pours herself a healthy helping of vodka.
Lorraine is ice-cold, and don’t you forget it—white as a sheet, with hair to match, and a personality that ranges from aloof to hostile. She’s also quite literally a Cold Warrior, dispatched to Berlin on the eve of the collapse of Communism, weaving in-between West and East Germany to recover a valuable asset—and root out a deadly double agent.
Theron has found director David Leitch, a perfect fit, who first rose to fame (and the keys to Deadpool 2) as co-director of John Wick, a movie that relatively enshrined Keanu Reeves’ own brand of badassery; both having a lurid approach to brutality, both gritty and gorgeous, in a way that frames its stars flawlessly.
Theron has long been a versatile star, but lately she’s become the goddess of action cinema, thanks to her astounding performance as the one-armed, apocalyptic truck steward Furiosa in 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road. She made an unfortunately short appearance as the main bad guy of The Fate of the Furious this year, but Atomic Blonde movie is more worthy of her talents, placing her at the center of tons of epic throwdowns with various KGB goons, crafted with absolute efficiency by Leitch (who co-directed the 2014 cult classic John Wick). The action in Atomic Blonde 2017 is top-shelf; but the plot that knits it together, crucial to any good spy film, is a whole lot flimsier.
Admittedly, Atomic Blonde movie is a case of spectacle vs. storytelling, though the CGI wonders here are swapped out for something far more grounded. It’s a showcase, essentially, for the very best of what fight choreography and fight direction can offer, with Theron’s ability to do her own stunts a key boost.
The peak, certainly, arrives in a scene premised around a single continuous take (though there are some hidden cuts to be found), in which Lorraine takes down several attackers in an apartment building stairwell. Leitch holds the camera back, observant, and there’s simplicity to his approach that puts the choreography front and centre: no snappy camera tricks, no music. Just the sights and sounds of punches landing their target.
The unique vision that Leitch, a former stuntman, brought to John Wick’s action (along with his co-director Chad Stahelski, who made the second Wick by himself) was essential to its success. Atomic Blonde is loaded with it—every sequence plays out with glorious clarity, letting the incredible stunts speak for themselves, and turning the camera into the third partner in each vicious dance. It’s breath-taking to see the camera gracefully swoop under and over and around Theron and her foes in every new bit of hand-to-hand brawl; Leitch is not a director who depends on quick takes, or shaky handheld shots, to hide away the tougher parts of his set-pieces.
Theron, is also as charming as Lorraine, an icepick thrust into the frigid, deteriorating burg of Berlin; she’s led by her own dark intentions that the movie gradually unveils over its 115-minute running time. Leitch lights her in pink neon and tinted blue, leaning hard into the nostalgic aesthetic of his late-’80s period piece, but Theron would excel no matter how she was filmed or costumed. She’s merely got the best eyes in the town—they’re deep wells of sadness or contempt, and depending on who she’s gazing at, in this movie, the only thing remotely betraying her Terminator bearing.
My only problem? I could not, for the life of me, tell you what was going on for most of Atomic Blonde full movie 2017. An hour after seeing it, most of the details of the story had already escaped me; it certainly involved Lorraine, MI6’s squirrelly station chief David Percival (James McAvoy), and a whole lot of double-crossing, but that’s about as much as I’d swear to. Based on the comic-book series The Coldest City by Antony Johnston and Sam Hart, Atomic Blonde movie is mostly concerned with the grim toll espionage takes upon one’s identity. Both Lorraine and David are far from devoted civil servants, and the result of their ongoing spy wars is reflected in the chaos of Berlin.
That idea works fine as subtext, but the film increasingly has characters voice that metaphor aloud to audiences, driving home a point that already felt perfectly clear—all while Lorraine plumbs deeper and deeper into a tangle of lies and fractured alliances that also include the French agent Delphine (Sofia Boutella), the German secret policeman Spyglass (Eddie Marsan), and a hulking KGB enforcer called Aleksander (Roland Møller). Atomic Blonde film also frequently cuts back to Lorraine’s debriefing session with her MI6 superior Eric Gray (Toby Jones) and a CIA liaison (John Goodman), seemingly to try and make sense of everything for the audience, but it only serves to confuse things more.
This scattered plotting is largely forgivable as an excuse for breathlessly exciting action and a typically riveting star performance. McAvoy is his blissful manic self (relate to his work in Split more than his fatherly X-Men role) as Lorraine’s often unhelpful partner, while Leitch sprinkles in an inordinate amount of utter ’80s needle-drops (including “99 Luftballons”) to propel each scene along. By the time Atomic Blonde gets to its climatic point, a 20-minute, single-take battle with a heap of KGB agents on a stairwell, it’s impossible not to give yourself over to its brutal charms.
There’s nothing to surprise, however, and the film’s plot can be momentarily confusing at times, existing in a genre that’s so overwrought by now that anything vaguely new actually feels like genuine innovation.