Just in time for the Cold War Revival comes David Leitch’s Atomic Blonde, a rock 'em, sock 'em spy tale set during the final days of the Berlin Wall.
Playing the eponymous heroine (whose abilities, title notwithstanding, aren’t limited to hotness or hair colour), Charlize Theron has all the steely cool such a movie needs, but is forced to keep her wit stashed somewhere alongside her fake passports.
Based on a novel by Antony Johnston, it’s no rival for John le Carré when it comes to the old cross-double-cross stuff, but a surfeit of style and a tasty supporting turn by James McAvoy help fill the time between fights, which - this being a film by the co-director behind John Wick - are pretty much the whole point.
Theron enters wearing nothing but bruises, which she’s soothing in an ice-filled bathtub and a less ice-heavy glass of vodka. Her Lorraine Broughton is an MI6 operative just returned from Berlin, due for a debrief with her handlers (Toby Jones and a CIA figure played by John Goodman) about her recent attempts to retrieve “The List” - a roster of Her Majesty’s secret agents.
As she sits in a room not unlike one where a different blonde was interrogated in Basic Instinct, Lorraine recalls her meeting with partner David Percival, an agent gone not just native but “feral”. McAvoy bites into the role with the same relish shown in Split, embracing the city’s artsy underbelly as enthusiastically as a British pop musician looking for a creative reboot. (Could the film’s music team, which pastes an unimaginative array of '80s hits across the soundtrack, not have matched Percival’s curiosity a bit?)
Given the vices we see Percival enjoy, we’re not surprised he immediately lies to Lorraine. But is he lying for good reason, in case she’s the infamous double-agent called Satchel, or for more nefarious purposes?
And what of the French agent (Star Trek Beyond’s Sofia Boutella) who spies on Lorraine and soon winds up in bed with her? Is she Satchel? Questions of loyalty and honesty are, to be frank, not very interesting here. Fortunately, there’s the mystery of all those bruises covering Lorraine’s body. Leitch gives a couple of good tastes of his action sensibility early on, one involving a useful coil of garden hose.
But genre fans will likely be so taken by the main event that they forget any storytelling disappointment leading up to it. A long sequence in the third act, in which Lorraine fights her way through an apartment house’s stairwell, is one for the ages, a bring-the-pain endurance test in which opponents seem nearly impossible to kill. Theron punches through it with a fierceness to match Matt Damon in the Bourne franchise.
The more obvious comparison, of course, is with the latest, earthily violent incarnation of James Bond.
As enjoyable as Atomic Blonde can be at times, Theron deserves better than this. If not a reincarnation in which James becomes “Bond, Jane Bond,” then at least something with more staying power. -