Atomic Blonde is set in 1989 and that feels appropriate because it’s a gleefully rated R entry in an action genre that cranked out a lot more of those 30 years ago. It’s unapologetically violent, sexy, and stylish with a pulsating late 80s soundtrack booming all throughout (almost all throughout). It’s additionally uneven at times and confusing, but I didn’t care much because the good outweighs the bad and the bad people look good doing their thing.
David Leitch co-directed John Wick and we see those kind of kinetic fight scenes represented here as well. Charlize Theron is Lorraine, an MI6 agent dispatched to Berlin just days before the collapse of the Wall. While the Cold War is drawing to a close, she’s given the mission of retrieving a McGuffin (a wristwatch in this case) that hides the identities of secret agents. She’s also teamed up with Percival (James McAvoy), an outlandish fellow agent who may or may not be on her side. Lorraine also gets friendly (very friendly) with Sofia Boutella’s French agent and the scenes between them aren’t something normally found in summer shoot-em-up material.
The story is told in flashback (not exactly an original touch) as Lorraine recounts her sordid Berlin experience to a CIA man (John Goodman) and other government big wigs. The villains change seemingly minute to minute. It’s a screenplay that never tires of double, triple, and quadruple crosses. Trying to piece it altogether at its conclusion may not be worth your time.
That said, certain sequences and the general cool vibe make it worth your while. It also doesn’t hurt to hear George Michael, A Flock of Seagulls and others singing along during the battle ballets. They’re a trip, but the most effective fight scene is a gloriously choreographed number with no music. It might be the finest action set piece using that distinction since Heat.
Theron has proven herself in several genres, but she sure seems comfortable in this one. McAvoy is having a blast as well. Atomic Blonde is shameless in a way that R rated action pics should be when they’re done well enough. And that alone sets it apart in the summer season.
*** (out of four)