Among the many wild fight scenes in “Atomic Blonde,” one finds Charlize Theron as MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton rappelling from a balcony using an incapacitated goon as her counterweight, and that’s not even the craziest bit. Later, she battles her way through another apartment building loaded with KGB goons, in a single, unbroken shot that careens down several flights of stairs, through the close quarters of a decrepit room, and into the confines of a speeding car. Bullets, knives and fists factor heavily into this spectacular showdown, but nothing hits harder than the camera pressing in close to Theron as she glares at one of the vanquished men and growls, “Now you’re my bitch.”
This is not only the essence of “Atomic Blonde,” but a phenomenal show-stopping moment that makes the whole gambit worthwhile. The first solo effort by “John Wick” co-director David Leitch, “Atomic Blonde” exists in the same realm of hyperstylized action built around the cold ferocity of an unstoppable action star. It only falters when attempting to tie more story around her.
Set in Berlin 1989 and adapted from the graphic novel “The Coldest City,” the movie unfolds in the days leading up to the collapse of the Berlin Wall, though the historical details are little more than aesthetic flourishes, an excuse for the snazzy nostalgic soundtrack and “John Wick” cinematographer Jonathan Sela’s neon-blue vision of the seedy Germany city.
Despite the sprawling backdrop, the setup for “Atomic Blonde” is pretty straightforward: After a British agent is killed for mysterious reasons, Lorraine and her cohorts learn that the Russians may have their hands on nuclear intel that could extend the Cold War for decades. She’s forced to join forces with Berlin bureau chief David Percival (James McAvoy, fittingly cast as a zany, gun-wielding psychopath) even as she distrusts his motives and would prefer to get to the root of the situation on her own.
That’s just enough detail to set in motion plenty of reasons for the enigmatic Lorraine to battle her way through the urban underworld, but Kurt Johnstad’s screenplay mistakenly accommodates additional plot details that distract from the main attraction. The framing device of “Atomic Blonde” takes place after the bulk of the action, with Lorraine forced into an interrogation session by MI6 investigator Gray (Toby Jones) and a stern CIA ally (John Goodman). Repeatedly interrupting the fast-spaced showdowns, their terse conversations mostly just summarize the flashbacks preceding them, and waste time on explaining a whole network of distracting ingredients.
Oscillating between the relentless energy of “John Wick” and the dense plotting of a John Le Carré novel, “Atomic Blonde” never quite finds a happy medium between the two. But when Theron goes back to kicking ass, nothing else matters.
Every battle has its own set of punchlines, and they’re usually punctuated by a gruesome gag or three, from Lorraine jamming a keychain into one attacker’s cheek to another villain hopeless attempting to yank a knife from his back. These scenes combine first-rate physical comedy and virtuoso filmmaking in one package, and there’s just enough of them to keep “Atomic Blonde” from sagging too deeply into its dreary exposition before bouncing back.
“Atomic Blonde” barrels forward in fits and starts, but it works best in pure B-movie mode, revising the action hero mold from a feminist perspective without overstating it. Notably, Lorraine’s big sex scene with another woman doesn’t overplay her sexuality or linger in revealing closeups; Leitch both revels in her physicality and treats it with respect. He applies the same degree of reverence to the soundtrack, which features period-appropriate staples ranging from George Michael’s “Father Figure” to David Bowie’s “Cat People (Putting Out the Fire)” and often cranks up the volume. Needless to say, “Atomic Blonde” is never less than an absorbing audiovisual experience whenever it lets the pure visceral rush of its assemblage take over.
However, it falls short of building anything substantial out of its setting, and hobbled by attempts to show that there’s more going on beneath the surface, it overextends the underlying appeal. One fun reveal in the closing moments complicates Lorraine’s allegiances and sets up the possibility of more installments, but the staying power of “Atomic Blonde” has nothing to do with its plotting or period details, which have been draped over the material with the same cartoonish exuberance of the fight scenes.
Fortunately, Theron singlehandedly wrestles control of her big moments, to the point where it’s almost incidental that there happens to be more movie around her. “Atomic Blonde” is a story of a hidden dealings and murky agendas, but only one certainty: On the heels of her scene-stealing moments in “Mad Max,” Theron’s action stardom is now anything but secret.
“Atomic Blonde” premiered at the 2017 SXSW Film Festival. Focus will release it in the U.S. on July 28.