'Atomic Blonde' Confirms Charlize Theron's Place In The Action Movie Pantheon

Note: This review originally ran following the world premiere of Atomic Blonde at the SXSW Film Festival. It is in theaters today.

In a nutshell: Atomic Blonde is about a badass, bisexual British secret agent who fights like John Wick and seduces like James Bond who travels to Germany days before the fall of the Berlin Wall to recover some stolen intelligence. She wears a number of amazing outfits, kills a whole bunch of bad guys, and just looks terrific as she struts through noisy nightclubs and desolate alleyways to a soundtrack of '80s synth pop. It is excellent, two-fisted entertainment and further proof that Charlize Theron is one of our great modern action heroes.

In a smaller nutshell: Atomic Blonde is one of the most purely entertaining action movies coming out this year.

Anyone disappointed that David Leitch let fellow John Wick director Chad Stahelski helm the sequel by himself will be pleased to know that Leitch's first solo gig is cut from that same tough, stylish, merciless cloth. That means we're getting double the number of action movies that are all about hard-hitting stunts and lengthy shots that let you actually appreciate those hard-hitting stunts. Leitch, a former stunt performer, and stunt coordinator, knows how to stage astonishing action and he's wise enough to know that we want to see it all clearly.

Of course, there's a reason everyone is punching and kicking and knifing and vehicular homicide-ing each other in Atomic Blonde. Theron is Lorraine Broughton, an ice-cold secret agent who is sent to Berlin after another spy (and one-time lover) is murdered, and a top secret list of spies and their codenames is stolen by a rogue KGB operative. In this political powder keg of a city, she meets, and quickly learns to distrust, David Percival (James McAvoy in full scumbag mode), England's man-on-the-ground who has "gone native." Pretty soon, the complicated and sometimes convoluted espionage twists give way to Lorraine having to kill everyone.

It's the general plottiness of Atomic Blonde that sometimes drags it down and you can feel the shape of a leaner, faster movie lurking within the slightly-too-long running time. Like many spy movies, the plot twists and double crosses pile up with each passing scene. Not knowing what anyone is doing or thinking or planning at a given moment can be as exhausting as it is thrilling. The film does reward you for sticking with it, but it's not always clear when you're deliberately not supposed to know what's going on or if you just missed a small but vital plot point. Kurt Johnstad's screenplay (adapted from the graphic novel The Coldest City by Antony Johnston and Sam Hart) is dense and complex, and there are moments when it feels like some of the finer points are lost in execution. Think Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy with more car crashes.

But once the action kicks in, it becomes easy to forgive just about everything else. Leitch is a stylish filmmaker, and every shot has something to savor: the gaudy colors of a West Berlin bar; the suffocating despair of an East Berlin neighborhood; chase sequences set against the backdrop of protests. Transitional titles depicted as graffiti being sprayed across the screen sound like they could be too much, but they're perfectly in-line with the film's hyper-stylized world. The atmosphere is provided by Tyler Bates' period-appropriate synth score and a soundtrack of recognizable '80s hits that accompany virtually every scene in the movie. In many ways, this is the too-cool, too-weird, too-grungy feeling that Suicide Squad tried and failed to nail last year.

At the center of it all is Charlize Theron and Atomic Blonde is very much the Charlize Theron show. Lorraine Broughton is less of a character and more of an attitude – you don't learn a thing about her personal life or what she wants or needs as a human being, but there's a thrill to be had from watching a powerful performer play someone who is just really, really good at their job. Lorraine is a fascinating companion to Theron's other great action heroine, Mad Max: Fury Road's Furiosa: the latter fights from the heart, during the other fights because she can emotionally divorce herself from the battle entirely. It's a true movie star performance, a case where a character works solely because the actor fills the gaps with unsaid history and pure gravitas.

It helps that Theron (like Keanu Reeves in the John Wick movies) does many of her own stunts and Leitch films his action to make sure we realize this. But Lorraine Broughton isn't just Lady John Wick. She's no superhero, no unstoppable force. While they share a similar, vicious style of combat, Theron is just a person, albeit a deadly one. She gets hit as often as she hits and gets knocked down as often as she knocks someone else down. Every single fight in Atomic Blonde, even the one-on-one brawls, is an ordeal. There are no easy victories, and the film doesn't shy away from showcasing its leading lady getting beaten to hell. She wears her battle scars throughout the entire movie.

This is especially evident in the film's best scene: a ten-minute long fight through an apartment building (stitched together to look like a single shot) where Lorraine battles a team of Russian agents. It's a tremendous fight scene because it's staged with so brilliantly and shot so audaciously, but it becomes remarkable because it acknowledges just how hard fighting someone to death must be. By the final stretch of this real-time brawl, Theron and her opponents are noticeably battered, panting, unsteady on their feet, and frequently backing away from each other to catch their breath and summon a second (and third and fourth and fifth) wind. It's the alley fight from They Live, the street fight from that infamous Deadwood episode and any scene from The Raid were all combined into one of the most impressive action scenes...of the past decade? Hyperbole may be earned here.

I once wrote that James Bond would be a more efficient secret agent if he was bisexual (doubling his odds of seducing information out of people!) and Lorraine Broughton is up to that challenge. Although she initially sleeps with a French spy (Sofia Boutella) for work purposes, the two continue to see each other throughout the film. Some will accuse this of Leitch using girl-on-girl imagery to get a literal rise of the men in the audience (and their sex scene is shot like a soft-core porn film if we're going to be honest here), but let's focus on what Atomic Blonde does that's so unique. Here's an action movie about a tough-as-nails warrior whose attraction to both sexes is not treated as a sign of villainy or betrayal or an entirely broken moral compass. Lorraine Broughton is duplicitous because of her career choice, not because she likes to get it on with men and women. It's not the most eloquent pro-LGBTQ statement out there, but seeing a proper action hero so unashamed of her sexuality (and perhaps even empowered by it) is a breath of fresh air.

Atomic Blonde can be shaky, but it is also sexy and stylish and shot by filmmakers who actually value action. It's cool without being too cool. David Leitch is going to be making action movies for a long time...and hopefully Charlize Theron will star in a few more of them./Film Rating 8 out of 10