Arthouse independent filmmaking mashes quite nicely with blockbuster action in “Atomic Blonde,” Charlize Theron’s latest movie billed as a cross between the debonair suave of James Bond and the lethally brutal “John Wick.”
What director David Leitch actually delivers, however, is an interesting, albeit graphic take on spy serials in the style of a John le Carré novel. It’s “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” for the 21st Century, if you will.
Theron stars as British intelligence operative Lorraine Broughton, tasked with infiltrating a divided Berlin in 1989 just before the wall fell in search of a list of undercover spies hidden across the globe.
While the plot of “Atomic Blonde” may seem straight forward, the execution is anything but.
Thematically, Leitch’s film feels drenched in spray paint shining with a bright neon glow and that design permeates its way into every aspect of “Atomic Blonde” from the cinematography to the action sequences to the acting performances themselves.
Aside from a few stoic upper management parts, every performance within Leitch’s film radiates balled up energy like an over-cranked children’s toy waiting to be released.
Perfectly cast as the cold-as-ice spy with emotions bubbling under the surface, Oscar winner Theron seamlessly eases into her role as Broughton. Though the film opens with her emerging naked and bruised from an ice bath, it’s the scars Theron subtly hints at under the skin that permeate and haunt her performance.
The single best performance within “Atomic Blonde” is offered by James McAvoy, who gives his David Percival a controlled mania that could only result from far too many consecutive viewings of “Fight Club.” Whether he’s spouting off Nietzsche or shaking down informants for intel, McAvoy radiates a chaotic balancing act between loyalty to his country and self-serving rule bending. It’s always the most interesting thing to watch on screen.
Sofia Boutella, who has worked her way into larger roles in action films after “Kingsman” and “The Mummy,” does her best and most promising work to date here as naïve love interest Delphine. Boutella stands her own in scenes opposite both McAvoy and Theron and never feels outmatched or out of place.
“Atomic Blonde” is also aided by strong supporting performances from John Goodman and Toby Jones as stoic middle management types working for MI6 and the CIA. Scenes with the pair debriefing Broughton are among the film’s best and give “Atomic Blonde” the dramatic weight needed to elevate Leitch’s film above standard action film fodder.
In terms of spectacle, “Atomic Blonde” usually opts for flashy cinematography over big explosions.
The main exception here is a stunning five-plus minute action sequence that looks like it was shot all in one continuous take. Witness Theron – who performed 98 percent of her own stunts in the film – take on several Russian henchmen while dragging an informant to safety will last as the film’s most iconic and impressive moment.
There’s a level of brutality inflicted by and upon women that hasn’t been seen in a major feature film since 2011’s “Sucker Punch.” And while “Atomic Blonde” does occasionally evoke elements of that average, under-seen film, Leitch takes care to ensure that the violence is offset with memorable character performances on top of the flash. His film has a lot more grit and heart as a result.
Moviegoers looking to catch a summer action blockbuster that takes chances while providing a bloody good time should make their way to a local theater to catch “Atomic Blonde.”