It’s always a pleasure in twisty spy thrillers when heroes deceive their deceivers. But what Charlize Theron unleashes in the exquisitely choreographed violence of David Leitch’s Atomic Blonde is a thrill more explosive than that.
The Oscar-winner’s performance as a killer MI6 agent is a feat of grit, grace, and workmanship. It cements Theron as one of our greatest modern action stars, tailored to her knack for steely strength. Her Lorraine Broughton is the best Jane Bond we’ve never had, made instantly iconic through the greatest long-take action scene this side of Oldboy.
That’s the scene that everyone will talk about once the movie’s released in July. It’s a heart-pounding endurance test in which Lorraine shoots, stabs and kick-thrusts her way out of an apartment building’s stairwell, battling wave after wave of Russian spies. At the film’s premiere Sunday at SXSW, the scene made Austin’s Paramount Theater bubble like a shook-up soda bottle, bursting into hollers and applause each time Lorraine took another man down.
It’s hard not to cheer at the sight of it. Theron exudes deadly femininity with her poster-ready shock of blonde hair and an enviable closet of finely tailored coats, thigh-high boots and killer lingerie. In Lorraine’s hands, anything is a tool of destruction, from the knick-knacks found in that stairwell, to the red leather stilettos on her feet.
Theron co-produced the film and trained months for these fights. Onscreen, Lorraine is majestic: lightning-quick and surgically precise, a one-woman hellish force. Ten minutes or so into that hallway fight and she’s staggering from exhaustion, bloodied and bruised, yet still doggedly attacking with nothing but a corkscrew. (Somewhere, another iconic blonde action heroine, True Romance’s Alabama, just winked in approval.)
Leitch, an ex-stuntman making his solo debut after co-directing 2014’s divine John Wick, excels in stylish action scenes like that one (a talent that’ll be put to use in next year’s Deadpool 2). Graced with cinematographer Jonathan Sela’s coolly-hued, often breathtaking compositions—and buoyed by a pop ‘80s soundtrack heavy on hits like David Bowie’s “Under Pressure” and Nena’s “99 Luftballoons”—Atomic Blonde is damn near irresistible.
It’s such a good time, in fact, that it’s easy to forget—or willfully gloss over—problems in the film’s non-action-driven story, which range from needlessly complicated to damn near nonsensical.
Based on Antony Johnston and Sam Hart’s 2012 graphic novel The Coldest City, Atomic Blonde plays out amid the upheaval of the days before the Berlin wall fell in 1989. Burnt-out cars, mohawked punks, and protests clog graffitied streets as CIA, MI6, and KGB agents wage war over a stolen dossier containing the identities of all Her Majesty’s spies.
Lorraine, MI6’s best agent, is sent straight into the hornet’s nest to retrieve the goods. She’s assigned the help of Berlin station chief David Percival (James McAvoy, deliciously unhinged), a drunk with wild eyes and a Sinead O’Connor haircut who hinders more than he helps. He’s described as having gone not only “native”—“I LOVE BERLIN!” he bellows at one point—but full-on “feral.” He’s unreliable from the start, making it confusing that the film takes so long to come around to the same opinion.
Part of the problem may be that screenwriter Kurt Johnstad frames Lorraine’s story in flashbacks via a debrief/interrogation with her MI6 superiors. (To its everlasting credit, the film laughs along at the notion of small men in ill-fitting suits as the superspy’s “superiors.”) The device allows for lots of time-jumps and twists, which here tends to overstuff and occasionally overcomplicate things.
Only one of those twists is really surprising, and it comes right at the end. Meanwhile a tangled web’s worth of characters whizz in and out of frame before we understand much about who they are, whose side they’re on, or what they’re doing. A spy’s mantra is “trust no one,” of course, so it may not matter much anyway. But doesn't a film this exhilarating and visually sumptuous deserves a higher ratio of compelling characters?
The plot does eventually ramp up into intrigue that matches the pace of its action—or rather, plot and action become one as Theron goes, well, atomic in the film’s final act. It’s a sight to behold. This is the same actress who brought us Furiosa, a modern action icon as macho as Lorraine is feminine, with equal ferocity in both roles. The scarcity of such uncompromising roles for women in action films makes Atomic Blonde something of a treasure.
That Lorraine also happens to be bisexual (she strikes up a rawly sexual romance with a dark-haired French agent played by Sofia Butella) adds to her importance—even if, alas, her romance does succumb to a few tired tropes.
Theron literally bled to bring this role to screen, cracking two teeth as a result of clenching and punching, as she excitedly recalled in an F-bomb-dropping tizzy to the film’s premiere audience at SXSW. “I fucking love this character,” she said, to more whoops and applause. She recalled training with Keanu Reeves, who prepped at the same time for his role in John Wick: Chapter 2. “We would spar and shit like that,” she said. Can you even imagine?
With Leitch and McAvoy by her side—the former repeatedly praising his lead’s hard work and dedication—she also began to tear up. “I’ve been doing this for almost 20 years,” she said, soaking in the moment’s victory. “Tonight was really special for me.”