Atomic Blonde is fond of its ice cubes. David Leitch’s spy thriller introduces us to the MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron), covered in bruises, soaking in a bathtub full of them. She emerges, tosses a couple in a glass, and pours herself a healthy helping of vodka. Lorraine is ice-cold, and don’t you forget it—white as a sheet, with hair to match, and a personality that ranges from aloof to hostile. She’s also quite literally a Cold Warrior, dispatched to Berlin on the eve of the collapse of Communism, weaving in-between West and East Germany to recover a valuable asset—and root out a deadly double agent.
Theron has long been a versatile star, but recently she’s become the reigning queen of action cinema, thanks to her marvelous work as the one-armed, apocalyptic truck steward Furiosa in 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road. She made an unfortunately brief appearance as the main villain of The Fate of the Furious this year, but Atomic Blonde is more worthy of her talents, putting her at the center of half a dozen epic throwdowns with various KGB goons, choreographed with ruthless efficiency by Leitch (who co-directed the 2014 cult classic John Wick). The action in Atomic Blonde is top-shelf; but the plot that knits it together, crucial to any good spy film, is a whole lot flimsier.
The unique vision that Leitch, a former stuntman, brought to John Wick’s action (along with his co-director Chad Stahelski, who made the second Wick by himself) was essential to its success. Atomic Blonde is loaded with it—every sequence plays out with glorious clarity, letting the incredible stunts speak for themselves, and turning the camera into the third partner in each vicious dance. It’s electrifying to watch the camera gracefully swoop under and over and around Theron and her enemies in every new bit of hand-to-hand combat; Leitch is not a director who relies on quick cuts, or shaky handheld shots, to obscure the tougher parts of his set-pieces.
Theron, too, is magnetic as Lorraine, an icepick thrust into the frigid, deteriorating burg (pun intended) of Berlin; she’s driven by her own dark motivations that the film slowly unravels over its 115-minute running time. Leitch lights her in pink neon and tinted blue, leaning hard into the nostalgic aesthetic of his late-’80s period piece, but Theron would excel no matter how she was filmed or costumed. She’s simply got the best eyes in the business—they’re deep wells of sorrow or contempt, and depending on who she’s looking at, in this film, the only thing remotely betraying her Terminator demeanor.
My only problem? I could not, for the life of me, tell you what was going on for most of Atomic Blonde. An hour after seeing it, most of the details of the story had already escaped me; it certainly involved Lorraine, MI6’s squirrelly station chief David Percival (James McAvoy), and a whole lot of double-crossing, but that’s about as much as I’d swear to. Based on the comic-book series The Coldest City by Antony Johnston and Sam Hart, Atomic Blonde is mostly concerned with the grim toll espionage takes upon one’s identity. Both Lorraine and David are far from devoted civil servants, and the result of their ongoing spy wars is reflected in the chaos of Berlin.
That idea works fine as subtext, but the film increasingly has characters voice that metaphor aloud to audiences, driving home a point that already felt perfectly clear—all while Lorraine plumbs deeper and deeper into a tangle of lies and fractured alliances that also include the French agent Delphine (Sofia Boutella), the German secret policeman Spyglass (Eddie Marsan), and a hulking KGB enforcer called Aleksander (Roland Møller). The film also frequently cuts back to Lorraine’s debriefing session with her MI6 superior Eric Gray (Toby Jones) and a CIA liaison (John Goodman), seemingly to try and make sense of everything for the audience, but it only serves to confuse things more.
This scattered plotting is largely forgivable as an excuse for breathlessly exciting action and a typically riveting star performance. McAvoy is his delightful manic self (think his work in Split more than his fatherly X-Men character) as Lorraine’s often unhelpful ally, while Leitch sprinkles in an inordinate amount of obvious ’80s needle-drops (yes, including “99 Luftballons”) to propel each sequence along. By the time Atomic Blonde gets to its pièce de résistance, a 20-minute, single-take brawl with a heap of KGB agents on a stairwell, it’s hard not to give yourself over to its brutal charms, logic be damned.