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Atomic Blonde, a thriller starring Charlize Theron as a spy in cold-war era Berlin, is a violent, fast-paced, entertaining action movie. Even though it takes place in the world of British secret agents, this is one spy film that could not be mistaken for a Bond movie. Whereas Bond usually seems to be having fun, no one in this film is enjoying themselves. What they do is confusing, dangerous and thankless work. A good day is one where they live to keep secrets about it.
I’ll start with the bad aspects of the film before I get to all the things I liked about it. The thing working against Atomic Blonde the most is its screenplay (The film is based on a 2012 graphic novel called The Coldest City by Antony Johnston and Sam Hart). The story itself is needlessly complicated and the interactions between the characters are missing a spark that is necessary to make the audience really care about the outcome. The twists in the final act should come off as cool, but could leave viewers confused as to who did what to whom. I think I know what was happening in the story, but I’m not sure I could pass a test on it.
Now on to the positives. The best thing the film has going for it is the lead performance by Charlize Theron as Lorraine Broughton. In Mad Max: Fury Road she showed that she can play a tough-as-nails action heroine. In Atomic Blonde she goes one step farther. Theron has the entire movie on her shoulders and delivers a very strong performance that would have elevated the movie even higher if the character motivations were easier to understand. As it is, she is surprisingly sympathetic as a woman who trusts no one as she struggles to figure out how to complete her mission.
Theron also convincingly battles men much larger than her in several brutally realistic fight scenes, many of which she performed herself. There is one in particular, a battle in a stairwell toward the end of the film, that will be talked about among action movie aficionados for years to come. Director David Leitch (who directed a few scenes for 2014’s John Wick) has worked as a stuntman and a stunt coordinator and his skills are put to good use here.
Additionally, the fight scenes are made easier to follow thanks to the cinematography by French-born Jonathan Sela. Sela, who got his start as a cameraman and lighting technician on Israeli television productions, keeps the action close and clear (as a child, Sela decided he wanted to be involved in film when his grandfather took him to the set of Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List in Krakow, Poland). Many recent action scenes have been rendered hard to watch by quick cutting and shaky cameras, but that is not the case here.
Overall, the film is a little disappointing. It was never able to build enough momentum to be the fun spy thriller it was probably intended to be. However, the fight scenes are great and Charlize Theron gives a strong lead performance. There are better films playing in theaters right now, but for pure visceral action, you won’t find anything better than Atomic Blonde. 3½ out of 5 stars.
By Ben Pivos
Ben’s Movie Reviews