After decades of spy movies dominated by men, the emergence of a woman able to hold her own as a virtual Jane Bond might seem long overdue. In the new movie “Atomic Blonde,” Charlize Theron dives deeply into the genre with an action-packed role that pits her as a British superspy who will stop at nothing to retrieve a list of British intelligence assets stolen by Communist agents in East Berlin just before the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Yet morally, there are some big problems with the way this movie goes about its goals, as it places her in an ultra-violent, whatever-it-takes mode that seems determined to outdo the ruthlessness of any male spy film, along with an intense lesbian sex scene.
The movie opens in 1989 Berlin, just days before the fall of the Berlin Wall, as a British spy runs for his life. He is in possession of a list of all the British intelligence assets working in the Communist bloc, which he received from an East German Stasi member code-named Spyglass.
Within moments, the Brit meets an untimely end, and the list is captured by his Soviet assassin. The film jumps forward 10 days to introduce Theron as a battered and bruised British agent named Lorraine as she ices herself down in a bathtub, preparing to go in for a debriefing by her MI6 supervisor and a CIA bigwig.
From there, the movie jumps timeframes between their interrogations and the events she describes taking place in the 10 days since the list was lost. Her adventures begin when Lorraine is sent to Berlin to team up with David Percival, the divided city’s MI6 field officer.
Their mission is to both retrieve the list and help Spyglass defect to the West, since he also has the list committed to memory. The potential problem is that David is a hard-drinking fellow prone to engaging in threesomes, causing Lorraine uncertainty about whether to trust him.
The one person with whom she lets her guard down is a French spy named Delphine, who seduces her after approaching her in a bar and offering a secret about David. As she finds herself dodging assassins at nearly every turn, Lorraine also tries to figure out the real identity of a double agent named Satchel.
“Atomic Blonde” serves as an action showcase for Theron, who displayed good chops for the genre in 2015’s “Mad Max: Fury Road” but takes things to a much more impressive extreme here. She uses everything from a high-heeled shoe to a set of keys to stab her opponents, is an expert at hand-to-hand combat, and is devastating with a gun.
Some of the sequences are jaw-dropping – including one in which she chokes an opponent with a hose, then uses him as ballast while making a running leap off a high balcony amid a hail of gunfire. The film’s instant-classic centerpiece is a five-minute battle royale on a staircase in which she wipes out a huge team of assassins with everything from fists to furniture, while taking enough damage to be rendered utterly dizzy herself.
Be forewarned, as impressive as the action is, it is all extremely graphic and results in plenty of splattered blood. The violence is taken to a punishing extreme, although action fans may enjoy the sense of awe the movie maintains throughout at Lorraine’s abilities.
The film’s depiction of Lorraine’s affair with Delphine is quite graphic, and “Blonde” also shows David waking up with two naked women. He later has Lorraine meet him in an S&M leather bar in one scene. Add in about 50 uses of the F-word and a sacrilegious joke about the Virgin Mary, and discerning viewers might want to think twice about going.
Director David Leitch co-helmed the first “John Wick” movie with Keanu Reeves, and displays an even more impressive way with action here. The tone of “Blonde” is somewhat lighter than “Wick,” partly due to the fact that much of its action is perfectly edited to 1980s pop songs including George Michael’s “Father Figure” and a pair of Depeche Mode’s greatest hits.
Theron handles her role with a confident swagger throughout, though the audience is left largely in the dark about Lorraine’s personal side outside of her affair with Delphine. McAvoy builds on the oily, menacing charm he’s displayed in other thrillers including “Split” and “Trance” to give David a wicked sense of sarcastic glee, but the Russian baddies are mostly interchangeable ciphers.
That unfortunately deprives the movie of a memorable villain, and along with a head-spinning series of double-crosses, often makes “Blonde” confusing to follow. Yet like “Baby Driver,” it is the kind of film that’s meant to be enjoyed for its visceral thrills more than its logic – for those who are aware of its highly questionable moments.