In an action scene in Atomic Blonde, Charlize Theron, clad in black thigh-high boots, a mini skirt and lace stockings, kicks and punches bad guys with unrelenting ferocity. To escape the altercation, she takes a rope, wraps one end around a thug (for leverage), and wraps the other end around herself as she jumps over the fifth-floor railing of a building before slamming her way to the ground.
The brutality of the scene, coupled with Theron’s fighting skills and beauty, form the core of Atomic Blonde, and as such make it richly entertaining. Theron is Lorraine, a British secret agent who’s sent to Berlin in November 1989 in the days before the Wall came down. Her mission is to rendezvous with an agent named David (James McAvoy) and recover a stolen list of undercover secret agents. If the Russians get it, that’s bad news for the good guys.
Most of the action is punctuated with ’80s pop tunes, and let me tell you, you’ve haven’t lived until you’ve watched Theron busting heads to the German version of “Major Tom.” And boy do heads get busted. And shot. Blood splatters on the camera. Household items like hot plates become weapons. The “R” rating is well-earned.
The action is brutal and fierce throughout, but the real highlight — and the reason people will speak fondly of Atomic Blonde for years to come — is the sequence inside an apartment complex about two-thirds of the way through the film. Lorraine fights thugs on the stairwell, inside apartments, and later through the streets of Berlin. It was shot to look like one long take (i.e. no edits), but it’s really some clever camera trickery that makes it seem like it was all shot at once. The long-take essence, however, allows the viewer to be immersed in the moment, which means you can almost feel all the kicks and punches.
Speaking of which, in the summer of the awesome Wonder Woman, Lorraine might just be the human Wonder Woman. For as superb as director David Leitch’s (John Wick) action is, the best thing about it is that it includes the exhaustion, blood and bruises that come with real fights. This means there are consequences to the fisticuffs, something many action movies lose sight of.
Kudos to Theron for learning the fight choreography and, more importantly, shepherding the project into existence. She bought the rights to the graphic novel on which the film is based, The Coldest City, upon its release in 2012, and worked diligently since then to make the movie a reality. Her Lorraine is a sexually confident, extremely intelligent and butt-kicking secret agent the likes of which we have rarely seen. It’s especially great because Lorraine isn’t objectified; she uses her sexuality as an asset, which makes it empowering. Between this and Wonder Woman, let’s hope the trend of strong lead female characters in action movies continues.
The only downside to Atomic Blonde is that it has too many characters, and the plot is more complex than it needs to be. It comes together with clarity in the end, but the journey to get there could and should be smoother. But that’s a minor gripe. Ultimately, Atomic Blonde offers an experience you don’t want to miss.