Atomic Blonde Review: Charlize Theron Finally Gets Her Proper Action Vehicle

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There’s a complex tale of espionage seeded in the fall of the Berlin War woven into Atomic Blonde. It’s a graphic novel adaptation full of twists and turns that takes quite a while to setup, something the film does through a mountain of exposition devoid of action aside from a few quick rounds of fisticuffs. But damn, once the setup is out of the way, the film becomes what a really wants to be: a vehicle for Charlize Theron at her most badass.
Set in 1989 Berlin, the film immediately drenches itself in the entire catalogue of classic ’80s rock-pop, with its synths pulsing almost as loud as Charlize’s punches. Some of the music choices may be uppers, but here they set a tone for this dark, violent affair of a film. Music is never far out of range. Even in quieter scenes, characters bathe in deep blues and soft reds from the neon glow, with the accompanying electric score giving the film the energy of an Eastern European dance club throughout. And thus, Atomic Blonde embodies the ’80s as much as it carries the turmoil of a still-divided Berlin.

Theron plays Lorraine Broughton, and MI6 agent being questioned for her actions following just over a week of actions that rock the European intelligence community, with the actual story framed as her recount of this period to her superiors (Toby Jones, John Goodman, and James Faulkner). She partners up with Percival (a delightful James McAvoy), a fellow British intelligence officer, to retrieve a list of names that threaten to extend the Cold War another 40 years, so we’re told. The film takes a little too long to establish any form of emotional connection, but then enters French operative Delphine (Sofia Boutella), who is playing spy games of her own but may just soften Lorraine. The film’s version of an emotional connection is admittedly barebones, but that fits its dark, ruthless tone, especially when the action lovingly bleeds into the over-the-top. After all, watching Atomic Blonde for a great story or emotional resonance is folly; you should be here for Theron kicking ass to the perfectly curated playlist of ’80s thumpers.

And action is where the film succeeds most. The fight choreography strikes a delicate balance where it feels raw and bone-crunchingly real, but also like a dance. Late in the film, the camera is thrust into a similar task, as the film dares to, and pretty much pulls off, the best single-take full action sequence since Children of Men.

There aren’t enough fights in the slow first half to warrant the film’s unfortunate two-hour runtime, but the eventual payoff is visceral and pulse-pounding. It is a wonder, however, why director David Leitch didn’t drop the film’s talky elements and overly complicated plot to deliver a perfectly tight, 100-minute action flick in the vein of John Wick. The film doesn’t really start having fun with itself until about an hour in, relying on a few quick action scenes and classic tunes to carry audiences through. This ultimately pushes Atomic Blonde a peg below where it thinks it should be. That said, the end leaves things wide open for a sequel that can remedy these flaws. So long as Theron is game, bring it on. Grade: B

By Matt Dougherty

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