Charlize Theron joins action’s top echelon with slick ‘Atomic Blonde’
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Punch kick stab shoot.
Borrow from “Bourne” and Bond.
Rinse and repeat.
This is the recipe for the quite ridiculous, ultra-violent and deliriously entertaining “Atomic Blonde,” a slick vehicle for the magnetic, badass charms of Charlize Theron, who is now officially an A-list action star on the strength of this film and “Mad Max: Fury Road.”
She’s a drop-dead bombshell who will drop you dead before you know what hit you.
Based on the graphic novel “The Coldest City” and directed by David Leitch, whose resume includes stunt double work for Brad Pitt on five films (and reportedly co-directing “John Wick,” though he didn’t receive an official credit), “Atomic Blonde” is set in 1989 Berlin — an inspired backdrop, given the Wall was about to come tumbling down, the streets were pulsating with electric tension, and Leitch gets an excuse to set extended action sequences to the sounds of “Father Figure,” “99 Luftballoons,” “Voices Carry” and “Under Pressure.”
From the get-go, “Atomic Blonde” announces itself as a self-consciously stylized and absolutely derivative thriller. The first song Leitch features is “Cat People (Putting Out Fire)” by the great David Bowie — the title song of the 1982 erotic horror film by Paul Schrader.
How many movies have the, um, audacity, to kick off with the title tune from another film?
“Atomic Blonde” is framed by one of the most time-honored storytelling devices: The lead character (in this case Theron’s super-spy Lorraine Broughton) is brought in for questioning after an operation has gone haywire, and as she spins her story, we flash back to recent events.
And what a tangled, convoluted, nearly headache-inducing story she weaves.
Lorraine (has there ever been a more mundane name for a secret agent?) arrives in Berlin on assignment from Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Her mission is to gain possession of the obligatory list revealing the names, locations and other personal information of Allied spies around the globe. (They might as well have called the list “The MacGuffin,” as it is the classic example of Hitchcock’s object that serves as the device to keep the plot humming.)
Five minutes after arriving in the city, Lorraine is fighting for her life — setting the tone for a film that rarely takes its foot off the accelerator.
The Berlin of “Atomic Blonde” is bubbling over with spies and hired assassins and double agents and mysterious operatives. Lorraine’s British contact is the wild card David Percival (James McAvoy), who seems to be working every angle possible and whose loyalties are called into question very early on.
It’s possible David will become a love interest for Lorraine. It’s also possible he’ll try to have her killed. Maybe both. Hmmm, how many times have we seen that in the James Bond canon of films?
Eddie Marsan (“Ray Donovan”) delivers fine work as “Spyglass,” a Russian traitor who claims to have memorized that entire list of intelligence operatives. Sofia Boutella, who was hopelessly lost in that dreadful “Mummy” movie, is captivating as Delphine Lasalle (these names!), an untested French spy who has a major crush on Lorraine, and she returns the favor in a big way. (My money is on Boutella and Theron to win the coveted “Best Kiss” trophy at the MTV Movie Awards. That’s still a thing, right?)
Director Leitch has a keen sense of pacing. When he cuts back to the interrogation scenes, with Toby Jones as Lorraine’s British supervisor and John Goodman as the CIA’s representative, they react as if they’ve just witnessed the scene Lorraine has described to them. Jones’ expression after Lorraine outlines her relationship with Delphine is priceless.
The visuals in “Atomic Blonde” pop right off the screen. Leitch periodically zooms in for tight close-ups of the stunning Theron, who conveys a world of emotions with a subtle movement of the eyes.
After a middle section that lags just a bit, things kick up another notch — make that about 147 notches — with a fantastically entertaining and brutally funny fight sequence that would have even Jason Bourne gasping for breath. In an apartment and then on a staircase, Lorraine takes on one henchman after another, crying out in guttural rage as she punches and kicks and shoots and stabs her way to survival. At one point the mere act of standing up sends her to the ground as she collapses like a marionette with the strings cut loose.
The camerawork in that sequence is cinematic jazz — amazing to behold.
Not every twist in “Atomic Blonde” is as “twisty” as the filmmakers might have envisioned. And there are so many bad guys the evil quotient is a bit diluted. If there’s a truly worthy adversary to the ATOMIC BLONDE, it’ll have to be in a sequel.
And we definitely need a sequel.
Universal Pictures presents a film directed by David Leitch and written by Kurt Johnstad, based on the graphic novel series “The Coldest City” by Antony Johnston. Rated R (for sequences of strong violence, language throughout, and some sexuality/nudity). Running time: 115 minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters.