In the opening moments of Atomic Blonde, Charlize Theron emerges naked from an ice bath, takes a couple of cubes with her, plops them into a glass along with some vodka, and contemplates herself in a mirror.
You can read the thoughts of Theron fans worldwide: Make mine a double.
They may be less enthralled by the strange cocktail offered up here by director David Leitch (the two John Wick movies), which plays at being be an ambitious espionage thriller — it’s set in 1989 Berlin as the wall is about to fall — but is happy to drop everything to watch Theron indulge in the brutal black comedy of violent beat-downs.
It’s as if John le Carré were hired to write something for Schwarzenegger: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Badass.
Why, we even have Toby Jones, playing virtually the same MI6 bureaucrat he played in the 2011 iteration Tinker, this time debriefing British agent Lorraine Broughton (Theron) who returns, bruised and bloody, from her Berlin mission to recount her adventures, forming the flashback spine of the movie.
Broughton goes to Germany to assist David Percival (James McAvoy), British Intelligence’s man in Berlin, assigned to rescue an East German defector (Eddie Marsan as Spyglass) who’s memorized a list of covert British operatives. The list also exists in physical from, inside a watch, which ends up in the hands of a rogue KGB agent.
Somewhere on that list is the name of a highly placed Soviet double agent, and it becomes clear that the agent could be anyone: Broughton, Percival, even the high-ranking MI6 administrator and CIA officer Emmett Kurzfeld (John Goodman) who listen to Broughton’s self-serving story.
It’s also clear that Leitch isn’t interested in the narrative of betrayal, which would require him to invest in the characters so that the viewer has a reason to care, to feel the sting of deceit and double-cross.
Leitch is more interested in opportunities for over-the-top action, and he finds it just about anywhere. Broughton wanders around East and West Berlin, occasionally bumping into East German police (she defeats a dozen in one sequence with an extension cord), and KGB agents in punk attire (the music-drenched movie concludes with the Clash but includes mostly period pop, including one clever sequence scored to ‘Til Tuesday’s “Voices Carry”).
Leitch outdoes himself in a sequence that has Broughton protecting the East German defector with one hand and fighting off a group of Soviet assassins with another — rolling out of an apartment and into a staircase in a choreographed ballet of escalating brutality that appears to have been shot in one impressive take.
In John Wick Chapter 2, Leitch referenced Buster Keaton, as if to signal to us that his grisly action stunts are all in fun. OK, but what’s fun about seeing a KGB thug beat a guy to death with a skateboard in a scene that doesn’t have much to do with the plot?
Here, his more pretentious reference is to Tarkovsky (Broughton fights a bunch of henchmen at a screening of Stalker), and there is the suggestion that collapsing, nightmare-ish East Berlin has become like Stalker’s zone: a lawless, borderless place that allows people to live out their desires, to find their true selves — for better or for worse.
It’s a high bar that the movie doesn’t clear. Instead, the fall of the wall becomes an occasion for glib cynicism, a mere prop in another gruesome, R-rated romp. Atomic Blonde is what fans of the Clash used to call a poser.
Directed by David Leitch. With Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, Toby Jones, John Goodman, Sofia Boutella. Distributed by Focus Features.
Running time: 1 hour, 55 mins.
- Parents guide: R (violence, language, nudity, sexuality)
- Playing at: Area theaters