Studio: Focus Features
Director: David Leitch
Writer: Kurt Johnstad
Producer: Eric Gitter, Peter Schwerin, Kelly McCormick, Charlize Theron, A.J. Dix, Beth Kono
Stars: Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, John Goodman, Til Schweiger, Eddie Marsan, Sofia Boutella, Roland Moller, Johannes Johannesson, James Faulkner, Bill Skarsgard, Barbara Sukowa, Toby Jones
During the downfall of the Berlin Wall, a covert spy is tasked with retrieving a secret list that will expose a double agent.
November 1989: Against a backdrop of fiery tension readying to bring Berlin to a boil, undercover agent Lorraine Broughton is on a secret assignment working both sides of the Wall for MI6. Her mission is to recover a stolen list outing the identities of every spy from every international organization currently operating in Germany.
The list is in the hands of a rogue KGB operative who killed her ex-lover to get it, and Lorraine’s only contact on the ground is a maverick MI6 plant believed to have gone native himself. Making matters worse, the list is said to reveal the true name of a duplicitous mystery man codenamed “Satchel.” In the wrong hands, this information could bring the entire world out of its Cold War and into nuclear winter.
Unable to trust anyone, including her new partner, Lorraine is already caught in a web of deceit, danger, and double-crosses before donning her first disguise. Obtaining the list is her objective, but so is staying alive. For that, Lorraine needs every ounce of solo skill, strength, spycraft, and savvy she possesses to stay two steps ahead of everyone else.
Traitorous turncoats, black market wheeling and dealing, secret passages to subterranean tunnels, and unrelenting assaults of sniper fire and close-quarters combat. If it’s in the spy cinema playbook, “Atomic Blonde” has it in spades.
For an espionage thriller thick with intrigue, the main story is slim on essential substance. Kurt Johnstad’s script, adapted from the Oni Press graphic novel “The Coldest City” written by Antony Johnston and illustrated by Sam Hart, has more exposition than necessary since its primary function is to springboard suspense. Quite a lot occurs constantly, yet when the side noise is drowned out, “Atomic Blonde’s” plot points play like MacGuffins moving everyone from one setup to the next.
But how seriously are such spy stories to be taken anyway? After all, in what bumbling butterfingers arena of espionage is it plausible for a Rosetta Stone of international spy names to exist, much less end up handled like a hot potato?
Coherently connected dots be damned, because what works for 007 works for “Atomic Blonde.” You come for blistering action, breathtaking escapes, and beautiful setpieces. You stay for the star, and “Atomic Blonde” has a big one in Charlize Theron.
Want hot take hyperbole to hammer home how much Theron grabs the movie by the throat and makes it hers to command? John Wick and James Bond have met their match, as there hasn’t been an action heroine this explosive since “Kill Bill.” Charlize Theron channels the full range of her charisma and sensational style to power a presence that is bigger, bolder, and as badass as Bourne.
Director David Leitch soaks scenery in sexy neon noir style. “Atomic Blonde” isn’t just set in 1989, where a terrifically curated retro soundtrack makes music a chief helix of the film’s DNA. It’s set in a femme fatale world of stiletto heels, foreign accents, and lipstick on cocktail glasses, and all of it is drenched in red light and cigarette smoke swirls.
Cinematography is cheekily overblown in moments such as James McAvoy striding in slow motion while backlit by fireworks, or in repeated shots of a rotating camera ascending/descending at dizzying angles. But that kind of color is critical to “Atomic Blonde’s” comic book core and a large part of its simultaneously gritty and glitzy cinematic charm.
Movies like this live or die on visceral value and “Atomic Blonde” pumps enough blood for ten hearts to handle. Tension routinely ratchets from Jackie Chan-like environmental excitement where anything and everything within reach can and is used as an instrument of crippling pain or devastating death.
Whether it is a keychain jangling from the cheek of someone stabbed in the face or a bad guy literally beaten with a rubber hose, “Atomic Blonde’s” action speaks for itself with a scream every chance it gets. And it gets plenty of them, particularly during a stairwell scene, staged as one singular shot from a camera as carefully choreographed as the gunplay and martial artistry, which is destined to be talked about as one of the most energetically engaging fight sequences of all time.
David Leitch’s hyper-charged direction is on full display. Charlize Theron and her costars bring all they have to the table and then crack it with the weight of their collective chemistry. The movie many not develop a deep or unique story, but who needs it when “Atomic Blonde” has the sights and sounds of a sumptuous action epic sizzling with style.
Review Score: 80