The ’80s are back, baby — the fashions, the tunes, the Russian spies. The Cold War is so hot right now, and action thriller “Atomic Blonde” is here to capitalize on that moment. Charlize Theron stars as the titular blonde in this violently stylish spy flick, doing her own version of “John Wick” as a taciturn secret agent with a very impressive set of skills.
Directed by former stuntman and “Wick” co-director David Leitch, “Atomic Blonde” is a cool bit of eye candy with incredible stunts and a killer soundtrack, even though it falters on the story itself.
“Atomic Blonde,” adapted by Kurt Johnstad from the graphic novel “The Coldest City” by Antony Johnston, is a harmonious marriage of material and star. Theron is perfect for the role as the frigid, butt-kicking MI-6 agent Lorraine Broughton, dispatched to Berlin for a dangerous mission in the shadow of the falling Berlin Wall in November 1989. Though the film claims it’s not the story of the Berlin Wall, it couldn’t be the story that it is without it. It offers a frenzied political backdrop, a ticking clock, and a robust sense of energy and urgency to “Atomic Blonde.”
Lorraine has been sent to Berlin to retrieve microfilm with a list of foreign agents working in the region. It was taken from the body of a dead British agent by the KGB operative who murdered him, and could now be for sale to the highest bidder. Lorraine is to connect with British agent Percival (James McAvoy), who has “gone native” in the underground club culture of East Berlin, and secure the list at all costs.
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Along the way, there are complications that take the form of tricky Russian agents, compromised identities, sexy French spies (Sofia Boutella) and a colleague gone rogue.
“Atomic Blonde” is a film about the power to be found in crafting images and telling stories. It’s self-consciously a movie about the movies. Take, for instance, a scene where Lorraine makes mincemeat of a Russian henchman’s face behind the screen of a movie theater playing Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Stalker.” Eventually, she bursts right through the screen, in the ultimate fourth wall break.
Leitch pays tribute to Tarkovsky’s signature long takes with a brutal, insane fight scene, filmed in a long, unbroken shot extending over at least 10 minutes. It goes up and down stairwells, in and out of apartments, into cars crashing and reversing down streets. It’s a remarkable feat of fight choreography, performance by Theron, and physical endurance on the part of the camera operator. It’s also the one fight not soundtracked to an ’80s pop hit — just heavy breathing and crunching bones.
Unfortunately, “Atomic Blonde” fumbles its own tale. After a brisk, efficient, uber-cool first hour, all new wave tunes and sexy neon lighting, the second hour drags into dullness. The narrative momentum is squandered and lost, and none of the coldly delivered speeches pack any dramatic punch. A plot twist is telegraphed too early, bungled and then over-explained, while another goes by without any context whatsoever.
It’s a shame, because “Atomic Blonde” is visually a cinematic delight. It’s not that it’s all style, no substance. But it doesn’t seem to know what to do with its substance, and ultimately, “Atomic Blonde” becomes a film that’s all dressed up with nowhere to go.
☆☆ 1/2 (out of five)
Director: David Leitch
Cast: Charlize Theron
Rated: R (sequences of strong violence, strong language throughout, and sexuality/nudity)
Running time: 115 min.