FILM REVIEW – ATOMIC BLONDE. With Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, John Goodman, Toby Jones, Sofia Boutella. Written by Kurt Johnstad. Directed by David Leitch. Rated R for sequences of strong violence, language throughout, and some sexuality/nudity. 115 minutes.
It used to be that as actors got older they would segue into more mature roles. However, in recent years performers like Liam Neeson, Tom Cruise, and Keanu Reeves have all focused on careers as action heroes, a genre that used to have its own stars. With ATOMIC BLONDE, they are joined by Charlize Theron, completing a transition that has included “Mad Max: Fury Road” and “The Fate of the Furious.”
Based on a graphic novel (“The Coldest City”), this fast-paced thriller offers us the stunning actress kicking butt and taking names. The story lacks the surreal overtones of the similar “John Wick,” but makes up for it by setting the action in Berlin in November 1989, in the weeks before the Berlin Wall was torn down. The thin plotline has her involved in extricating an East German agent (Eddie Marsan) who has a top-secret list of all the spies there.
Lorraine Braughton (Theron) is being debriefed by her boss at British intelligence (Toby Jones) and his counterpart at the CIA (John Goodman) and tells the story in flashback. She arrives in Berlin and is immediately made by the KGB. The top British agent on the ground, David Percival (James McAvoy), seems to have gone native, being more interested in wheeling and dealing on the black market. Meanwhile, Lorraine has to figure out who she can trust while being manipulated by British, American, Russian, German, and French agents, the last of whom (Sofia Boutella) has more than a professional interest in her.
As is typical in such stories, most of them are double or triple agents, working one side against the other, with Lorraine not always certain whom she can trust. One thing is certain, though––when she’s attacked, watch out. Using fists, feet, high heel shoes, guns, a heating plate, and almost anything at hand, she takes no prisoners. The action scenes are well-choreographed as one would expected from former stuntman-turned-director David Leitch, who did some work on “John Wick.”
Theron is relentless as Lorraine, dressing in high fashion, but ready to take out a team of enemy agents at a moment’s notice. McAvoy has fun as the dissipated British agent who may be following an agenda of his own making. The rest of the cast manages to avoid making their somewhat cliched characters too predictable, particularly Marsan as the defector. Pay particular attention to Boutella’s French agent. If she seems somewhat familiar but you can’t place her, Boutella’s recent credits include “Kingsman: The Secret Service,” “Star Trek Beyond,” and this summer’s “The Mummy.”
“Atomic Blonde” lacks the iconic weight of “Wonder Woman.” While there is no doubt discussion to be had about Lorraine breaking the mold-–both the violence and the sex here are very much on her terms––no one should mistake this for anything other than a summer action movie. We will likely see her further adventures and, if the filmmakers start to fully explore what having a fearless woman as the protagonist of such a film does to the assumptions of the genre, the sequels might become increasingly more interesting.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Time on My Hands: My Misadventures in Time Travel. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.