‘Atomic Blonde’ is a messy but invigorating Cold War story

NOSELL

Focus Features

 

Wednesday, August 2, 2017 - 2:40pm

Charlize Theron (“The Fate of the Furious”) proved herself to be one of Hollywood’s biggest badasses after her performance as Imperator Furiosa in George Miller’s recent masterpiece “Mad Max: Fury Road.” In an industry where men dominate both on and off-screen, Furiosa was a much needed change after years of watching super masculine, pumped-up dudes fight bad guys. “Atomic Blonde” shows Theron and all her badassery, though this time playing Lorraine Broughton, a secret agent in 1989 Berlin. Despite many of the movie’s shortcomings, Theron solidifies her status as Hollywood’s go-to action star capable of snapping necks and fighting with nothing but a shoe.  

“Atomic Blonde” takes place during the final days of the Berlin Wall, but describing the movie’s plot is as complicated and stressful as the Cold War itself. Broughton is a secret agent sent to recover a confidential list of every Soviet field agent following the death of an English MI6 agent. From here on, the movie becomes increasingly confusing and hard to follow. The entire premise is built around trying to figure out which spy is allegiant to which country, which is a weak foundation and “Atomic Blonde”'s ultimate downfall.

Distracting from this mayhem are the many brilliantly choreographed action sequences. Theron, who tested her fighting chops briefly in “Mad Max,” is the centerpiece to every on-screen brawl. Her moves are timed to perfection and feature ample creativity, like using an enemy’s feet to knock someone out. Simply put, I haven’t seen a fight scene more entertaining than the one in the long-take spiral staircase — this sequence will be the role model for all future action movies. It’s believably unbelievable; its pacing isn’t lightning fast and characters actually appear fatigued. By the time the scene ends, it’s worthy of a standing ovation.

Theron is joined by James McAvoy (“Split”), who plays a fellow spy, and John Goodman (“10 Cloverfield Lane”), an MI6 agent. No other characters display the same energy and stamina as Theron, and “Atomic Blonde” is entirely dependant on her performance. Her stoic and confident swagger are well-suited for a secret agent — she perfectly fits into the boy’s club of James Bond types — but in many ways, the script didn’t give her much to work with. A lot of the dialogue is predictable and forgettable; it’s neither cheesy nor witty. We don’t necessarily watch action movies for the dialogue, but it helps to have at least a few memorable lines people can walk out of the theater quoting.

“Atomic Blonde”’s screenplay, written by Kurt Johnstad (“300”), is adapted from Antony Johnston’s graphic novel “The Coldest City,” which almost excuses the underwhelming dialogue. “The Coldest City” laid out the groundwork for director David Leitch’s (“John Wick”) glossy visual style, combining grit with neon-lit glamor. Leitch’s former career as a stuntman explains the perfect action sequences: No one is more qualified to direct these kinds of fights than a stuntman himself. He was hired to direct “Deadpool 2,” and assuming it will be as successful as the first, his directing career is very promising.

At times, “Atomic Blonde” feels like a messier, more action-driven version of “The Americans.” Broughton bears resemblance to Elizabeth Jennings, and the show’s bleak, cold atmosphere likely influenced Leitch. And considering that “The Americans”’s side plots rarely become incomprehensible, “Atomic Blonde” is like one ongoing untidy, unnecessary side plot. Though with a modest budget of $30 million — this is cheap compared to other movies of its kind — “Atomic Blonde” offers everything we want to see in an action movie.