Charlize Theron stars in an ultraviolent spy thriller that features the must-see action sequence of the year
“Atomic Blonde” features one of the most audacious, hard-hitting, gloriously violent and technically thrilling action sequences ever filmed. Whatever the film’s problems may be, it needs to be seen for that reason alone.
Charlize Theron plays Lorraine Broughton, an MI6 spy who favors ice baths as cold as the blood in her veins. She’s the human representation of the film’s cool, gray visual palate, which is only occasionally perked up by splashes of blue and pink neon.
It’s 1989 on the eve of the collapse of the Berlin Wall, and a super-duper top secret list of spy identities has been compromised. Lorraine is sent to Berlin, where she teams with British agent David Percival (James McAvoy) to track down the list, and to fight tons and tons of dudes along the way.
“Atomic Blonde’s” language is violence; it was directed by former stuntman and stunt coordinator David Leitch, who knows a thing or two about staged fisticuffs. (His credits include “The Matrix” sequels and he was Brad Pitt’s stunt double in several films, so he knows what he’s doing.)
The film’s fight scenes are brutal: fists fly faster and land harder than they do in most films, and you can almost hear bones crack as they smash into other bones. “Atomic Blonde’s” violence is present; it’s not cartoonish, it hurts, and it makes you aware of the consequences of punches both thrown and landed. It’s a film that makes you say ouch.
Leitch stages these fight scenes with moxie, and Theron is a warrior queen who backs down from no one. Butt-kicking women on screen are far from a novelty these days, but Theron’s Lorraine is one of the most fierce to yet grace a screen; fantasy book her in a fight against Uma Thurman’s Bride character from the “Kill Bill” movies and let the fanboys pick a winner. (It would be close, but Lorraine may have the edge.)
“John Wick” is a touchstone here (Leitch was “Wick’s” uncredited co-director), and there are several visual homages to “True Romance.” “Atomic Blonde” is adapted from a graphic novel, and carries that look and style; it’s like a less noir “Sin City.”
So about that sequence, the one mentioned at the top of this review: Late in the film, Lorraine gets into it with a couple of thugs at the top of a grand old staircase, and they fight all the way down the stairs, pausing at each landing, in what Leitch stages as a continuous, unbroken shot. It’s a thriller. The fight continues into an apartment, out onto the street and into a car, and keeps going for what feels like 10 full minutes. (Leitch no doubt hides a few cuts in the sequence, but the effect is seamless.) Your draw drops early and stays open as the scene keeps building, and it challenges the high wire unbroken scene in “Children of Men” in terms of this millennium’s top filmed achievements. It deserves to be studied in film school.
Not everything in “Atomic Blonde” works as well. The film is scored to a series of ’80s pop hits (George Michael’s “Father Figure,” Nena’s “99 Luftballons,” etc.), and Leitch has a bad habit of cranking the volume at the chorus and syncing the action to match. (It’s an effective trick the first time, but wears out its welcome by the seventh.)
The film’s plotting is overly complicated; there are too many affiliations between warring entities to keep straight and it’s easy to get tangled up in the story’s needless complexities. And a framing device placing Lorraine in an interrogation (John Goodman and Toby Jones are her inquisitors) keeps interrupting the flow of the movie and breaks up its continuity.
But wow, that one sequence alone nearly makes up for it all. The way it detonates off the screen makes the film live up to its name. It’s atomic, and it’s a blast.
Rated R for sequences of strong violence, language throughout, and some sexuality/nudity
Running time: 115 minutes