On a diet of cigarettes washed down by Stoli on the rocks we meet Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron), an MI6 agent sent into Berlin to recover a list stolen by the KGB during the final days of the Cold War. And wherever Lorraine goes, bad guys, and hard-hitting epic action blowouts follow.
Under a coloured camera lens that stains the sterile bathroom blue, she emerges from an ice bath naked and veined; her right eye socket is black, her lips are split and swollen. We watch her inspect her injuries, every inch of her face, still perfect despite the trauma, and tape her ruined knuckles. The outfit she dons is every bit as fierce and fabulous as one would expect from a spy in the 80s and with her heels clopping the pavement she enters a secure facility to begin her mission debrief with an MI6 superior (Toby Jones) and a representative of the CIA (John Goodman).
Dispatched to West Berlin, she allies herself with Berlin bureau chief David Percival (James McAvoy) to help recover the list, and protect an East German defector (Eddie Marsan) who has the list memorized, from the KGB.
John Wick co-director David Leitch brings high intensity, hyper-stylized action sequences that are visually rambunctious and entertaining as hell. The bad guys hit hard and it seems that the Atomic Blonde hits even harder; leaving all who cross her path dead or wishing they were. As an actress Theron attacks each sequence with a level of lethal efficiency and determination that makes her stunt work just as impressive and believable as the professionals. The way she acts the punches she throws and receives is utterly beguiling and the audience grimaces with each blow. Theron performs with a poised regality that audiences have become accustomed to with her role as the Queen in The Huntsman series, and her lithe limbs ensure every move is both delicate and deadly in equal measure.
Based on Antony Johnston’s graphic novel The Coldest City, the film is visually stunning. Cinematographer Jonathan Sela casts Berlin’s underbelly in a neon-blue haze that contrasts spectacularly to Theron’s crisp presentation. The accompanying soundtrack provides the only real era identifier, but with hits from George Michael, Freddie Mercury and David Bowie, it adds a truly satisfying nostalgia.
Despite Theron’s spectacular performance, her character lacks an emotional connection to her mission, and we are given next to no background information about who she is, and what her relationship is to the task she is set. Early in the film we see a photo of Theron’s character with the agent who is killed in the first scene, but this glimpse is not mentioned or referred to again and the audience is left to wonder. It is at these times the storyline appears weak and undeveloped. Even though the film is clearly set in Berlin, the narrative arc is lacking in its sense of place, to the point where the story itself could be set anywhere and at any time and still make perfect sense.
However, the entertainment value of this film lies in its ridiculous action sequences that are so well crafted the audience is left dodging the blows as they come, and crying out when mundane objects act as impromptu weapons (it seems car keys and portable cooktops become deadly in Theron’s hands).
One thing is for sure, Charlize Theron has cemented herself as an action star, and no doubt we will be seeing so much more. She’s tough, graceful and sexy as hell. To see this Atomic Blonde in action is undeniably a sight to behold.
Review by Isabelle Aswad