In the thrill ride known as Atomic Blonde, Charlize Theron lets out the pent up energy from her primarily static role in The Fate of the Furious, kicking serious butt every which way she can — and pretty much all without a stunt double.
As MI6 secret agent Lorraine Broughton, she barrels through 1989 Berlin with a string of mesmerizing action sequences, the apex of which is a long-take battle in a stairwell that spills over into apartments, onto the street and into a Bourne-esque car chase.
Even more so than the violent delights that come before and follow, the set piece illuminates the potential of handheld camerawork when enacted by people who know what they’re doing and dares viewers to spot the edits — which are bound to be there, seeing as parts of the vehicular escapades are too visually cartoonish not to be done with the aid of green screens, yet are almost impossible to identify.
Based on the graphic novel series The Coldest City and directed by David Leitch, the uncredited co-helmer of John Wick — with whom Atomic Blonde shares hard-knuckled, throwback action film DNA, among other admirable qualities — the film plays out through recollections by a thoroughly bruised Lorraine in a London interrogation room.
Grilled by her superior Eric Gray (Toby Jones) and Emmett Kurzfeld (John Goodman) from the CIA while Chief “C” (James Faulkner, a.k.a. Randyll Tarly from Game of Thrones) and others observe through a two-way mirror, she rewinds 10 days to her dispatch to Berlin, where she’s tasked with helping station chief David Percival (James McAvoy) retrieve a list of double agents hidden in a purloined wristwatch.
Backed by a who’s who of smartly employed ‘80s hits and bursting with late Cold War intrigue courtesy of gorgeous neon-tinged cinematography from Jonathan Sela (who leant a similar visual allure to Wick), Atomic Blonde is a technical marvel from start to finish, and though its twisty storytelling doesn’t always make sense in the moment, it builds a satisfying air of mystery.
With no one 100% trustworthy, walking that line and keeping Lorraine on her toes are the likes of Eddie Marsan as hopeful Communist defector Spyglass, who quickly becomes an even greater asset upon revealing a hidden talent, and Bill Skarsgård (soon to be famous as the new Pennywise in It) as endearing passport forger Merkel.
Meanwhile, Sofia Boutella atones for her sins in The Mummy as French operative Delphine Lasalle, with whom Lorraine — in the words of Gray (and the film’s best joke) — makes “contact.”
Leitch, his gifted crew and A-list cast work in bloodthirsty harmony, and though all of the action scenes are executed with craft and entertainment at the forefront, Atomic Blonde could stand to lose a few of them. True to Lorraine’s toned physique and no-nonsense ways, the film cries out for a more streamlined presentation, though the final cut as is seems destined for repeat giddy viewings.
Grade: B-plus. Rated R. Now playing at AMC Classic, Biltmore Grande and Carolina Cinemark
(Photo: Focus Features)