For Charlize Theron and Atomic Blonde, I must default to the fun-filled website of Ranker and their ever-evolving list of “Movies with the Most Hardcore Women.” In 115 grizzled minutes, her secret agent Lorraine Broughton surges to a Top 5 place in that lineup behind Sarah Connor, Ellen Ripley, and Beatrix Kiddo. John Wick (and upcoming Deadpool 2) director David Leitch deviously feeds the soon-to-be-42-year-old Oscar winner one sorry beat-down victim after another in a pulpy film based on Antony Johnston and Sam Hart's well-regarded graphic novel The Coldest City.
Atomic Blonde roots its espionage into real-life history, taking place a week before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Right out of Mission: Impossible (unfortunately), a damning list of the cover identities of NATO-aligned spies embedded on microfilm inside an expensive watch has fallen into the hands of hulking KGB agent Yuri Bakhtin (Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson), looking to make a profit on his own. The twisting story that unfolds is all told by Lorraine after the events while she being debriefed by two suits from MI-6 (James Faulkner and Toby Jones) and one from the CIA (John Goodman).
Those men were the superiors that called on Agent Broughton’s deadly skill and feminine charms to recover the list. Landing in the divided city, Lorraine makes contact with a veteran undercover agent, David Percival (James McAvoy), a wild man who exploits every perk and indulges in every crooked curve of this city’s bucket of snakes. The platinum assassin, with a fondness for Stoli on the rocks, also picks up an interested tail in the form of French rookie spook Delphine Lasalle (Sofia Boutella). Across their differing agendas, the targets of interest are Bakhtin, the Soviet defector codenamed Spyglass who made the list (Eddie Marsan), and ruthless arms dealer Aleksander Bremovych (Danish actor and former real-life criminal Roland Møller).
Leitch’s film lacks zip, zilch, and zero in the style department. Splashy sprays and neon glows of color pop over the bleak grayness of a German November shot by John Wick cinematographer Jonathan Sela. Costume designer Cindy Evans drapes Theron and company in equal threads of trampy and dingy fit for the era. Through it all, music supervisor John Houlihan bends our ears with a superlative period soundtrack of pulsing tracks to spur the on-screen frenzy.
You come to Atomic Blonde for the action, not the pedestrian spy game from 300 screenwriter Kurt Johnstad, and, hot damn, does it deliver those goods. Unlike John Wick, which the majority of folks seemingly want to compare this film to, Lorraine Broughton favors hand-to-hand confrontation over the noisy quickness of a gun. Second unit director and Captain America series stunt coordinator Sam Hargrave teams with fight coordinator Jon Valera to have Theron punch and kick through every flailing groin and overmatched henchman that gets in her way in brilliantly choreographed and savagely visceral melee. Pass a little editing acclaim in the direction of Elisabet Ronaldsdottir. The film-saving piece-de-resistance is a climactic throwdown of Lorraine protecting her asset and battling multiple opponents across several rooms, doors, hallways, flights of stairs, and outside streets. Presented in a no-music single take and spanning at least 10 minutes, the kinetic timing and arrangement to pull that off is absolutely bonkers (and I love it).
The best cinematic sales job in the world goes to Charlize Theron, performing 98% of her own stunts and playing the flaxen viper with every drop of convincing venom necessary, which is always a razz because she can be an absolute ham off-screen. She prefers the hard stuff, just like her character’s taste in booze. Putting even someone like Liam Neeson to shame, Theron’s resume is no stranger to anti-hero toughness between Mad Max: Fury Road, Aeon Flux, The Fate of the Furious, Prometheus, The Italian Job, Hancock, and Snow White and the Huntsman. Linda Hamilton and Sigourney Weaver may have their single Mt. Rushmore characters, but I’ll put Theron’s work volume next to Pam Grier’s as arguably the most prolific badass female star of all-time.
LESSON #1: THE EXPRESSION “CUT TO THE CHASE” IS AS SHARP AS IT SOUNDS-- Multiple characters drop this line in Atomic Blonde in the most perfect, snappy places to prevent a monologue and let shorter sentences or other forms of communication, like the physical, finish the thoughts on the table, especially in the “give to get” information department. Add that verbal knife to your conversation vernacular and you will be cooler for it.
LESSON #2: TAKE A DEEP BREATH BEFORE A CARDIO ACTIVITY-- Listen to movie advice or a more qualified personal trainer telling you how important breathing is during strenuous cardiovascular activity, especially, you know, martial arts to defend yourselves against other trained killers. Lorraine knows what she’s doing.
LESSON #3: NO ONE WINS THE SPY GAME-- Atomic Blonde operates in a crevice of moral high ground. The war of information and espionage has always been about flexible or entirely removed morals to deceive and destroy your enemy. The straining double and triple crosses of Atomic Blonde may not explore new spy movie territory, but they hammer this ever-present trope home.