Nobody does the spy thing better than Charlize Theron – and unlike 007, she does it in heels. Director David Leitch, a former stuntman who co-directed John Wick, makes sure his dynamite star stays untamed and is up for anything. Based on the graphic novel series The Coldest City by Antony Johnston, Sam Hart and Steven Perkins, Atomic Blonde is set in 1989, during the thawing of the Cold War and the last days of the Berlin Wall. This allows Leitch to combine brutal, no-holds-barred action with angsty shades of vintage spy-vs-spy espionage – John Wick meets John le Carré. It’s a tricky mix that doesn’t go down easy. But Theron, in the middle of her action-hero phase and at her Mad Max: Fury Road best here, just nails it.
She plays Lorraine Broughton, an MI6 operative who makes life hell for her handlers (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy‘s Toby Jones, in league with John Goodman’s mystery man). They need her to stop a list of deep-undercover double agents from falling in to the wrong hands. Something goes wrong along the way, however. Clichés – the kind that suggest no one can be trusted and that every interrogation must take place in smoky, gray rooms – are milked endlessly, courtesy of a script by Kurt Johnstad (300).
Enter James McAvoy, clearly enjoying himself as David Percival, a twitchy secret agent who’s recently spun his way past the standard issue loose-cannon mode. Is he the mysterious rogue operative known as Satchel, who’s behind the missing roster of intelligence players who need to come in from the cold? Or maybe it’s Delphine (Sofia Boutella of The Mummy, though don’t hold that disaster against her), a French spy who seems very interested in some sapphic sexcapades with our heroine (for no other reason than spicing thing up with some hot girl-on-girl action)? Or maybe it’s Lorraine itself?
No matter. It’s the fight scenes that count – and they’re astonishingly good, from a mano-a-mano beatdown involving Theron’s stiletto heel and a thug’s jugular vein to a climactic free-for-all in a swanky hotel suite where “99 Luftbaloons” scores every gunshot and gut-punch. (The soundtrack is pure Reagan-era bliss.) Theron, who did most of her own martial-arts stunts, is pure bruising poetry in motion. She’s a stone-cold badass. How can you resist?