Atomic Blonde Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, Sofia Boutella. Directed by David Leitch. Rated R. Opens Friday citywide.
Atomic Blonde introduces its protagonist, British MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron), as she’s submerged in an ice bath, her body covered in bruises, cuts and welts. It’s clear from this early moment that director David Leitch (who was the uncredited co-director of John Wick with Chad Stahelski) understands the physicality of action and not just how cool it can look onscreen. He understands that part, too, but like John Wick, Atomic Blonde weighs the impact of every punch, kick and fall on its main character, making the audience feel the toll it’s taking on her. And Theron builds a character with little more than glances and terse exchanges; she’s not emotionless, but she’s also not defined by her emotional attachments.
Set in Berlin in 1989 just before the Berlin Wall comes down, Atomic Blonde follows Lorraine as she investigates the death of a fellow MI6 agent (to whom she had a clear but unspecified personal connection) and the theft of one of spy fiction’s favorite plot devices, a list of secret agents and their affiliations. While the setting at the very end of the Cold War provides a distinctive sense of urgency, most of the story is filled with familiar spy-movie machinations, and there are so many double-crosses and shifting allegiances that the plot eventually becomes a bit hard to follow. In Berlin, Lorraine is meant to team up with local MI6 station chief David Percival (James McAvoy), but he’s such an unreliable loose cannon that he’s as much an obstacle as an asset.
Theron is fantastic as the smooth, efficient Lorraine, and McAvoy balances her out well as the manic Percival, who’s spent far too long among the scumbags of Berlin. Toby Jones and John Goodman bring some dry wit to their roles as higher-ups attempting to debrief Lorraine following the mission, and rising star Sofia Boutella (The Mummy, Star Trek Beyond) is luminous as a French spy with whom Lorraine has a steamy affair. Leitch, a longtime stunt coordinator, builds on the work he did with Stahelski in John Wick, staging jaw-dropping action sequences that are both brutal and beautiful. The high point is a bloody brawl in a stairwell that unfolds over what appears to be (but, of course, isn’t quite) a nearly 10-minute single take.
Leitch varies his approaches to action sequences, but they’re all striking in their own ways, clear and clever and direct. The soundtrack is full of well-chosen ’80s rock and pop, and the costume and set design are stylish and sophisticated. Every visual element contributes to defining the characters and moving the story forward, while still looking effortlessly cool.