Set on the eve of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and choreographed to a thumping Euro-pop synth beat, Atomic Blonde is the best action movie this year since John Wick: Chapter 2. That makes sense, as Atomic Blonde comes from the same production/stunt company as John Wick, and is directed by David Leitch, who co-directed John Wick. But unlike John Wick, the protagonist in Blonde is a woman: Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron), a British spy in the Cold War. Gender-flipping the action lead has no effect on the brutal, stylized violence introduced by John Wick—Leitch and his fellows at 87Eleven have a house style, and it is bone-crushingly realistic.
Theron is SPECTACULAR as Lorraine, leading with Lorraine’s spy-trained shrewdness and emotional armor, but also touching on moments of vulnerability that she can’t afford to expose. It’s not an especially emotive performance, and not unlike Keanu Reeves as John Wick, Theron as Lorraine is a single-minded character whose own survival takes precedence over everything else. That’s not to say that Theron isn’t doing some serious work as an actor. She sells the action as well as anyone, and she also is totally convincing as a spy on the cusp of burnout. Theron focuses her range so acutely that when Lorraine does indulge an emotion, it lands with precision.
But Atomic Blonde is not a character study—it’s a teeth-rattling action movie and Leitch is more than capable of delivering. Working without the influence of his creative partner, Chad Stahelski, Leitch reveals a sharp, stylized eye and surprising sense of humor. Blonde is drenched in Cold War paranoia and an end-of-days vibe as Berlin teeters on the brink of revolution. Everyone is dressed Maximum Cool, and the film is loaded with references to classical art and cinema (something Leitch and Stahelski share is a love of visual references). It’s also soaked in the distinctive crimson-jade-indigo color scheme of John Wick, so until someone says otherwise, I assume Atomic Blonde happens in the same universe.
And the action is simply incredible. Lorraine fights with anything at hand, using everything she can grab or throw to take down opponents. Theron is more than up to the task, her physicality grounding and believable, and though Lorraine dishes out plenty of damage, she also takes a lot—it matters when Lorraine takes an especially hard hit, and her decisions are affected by whatever injury she’s just sustained. And there are nude scenes in Blonde, but they’re not sexy or about Theron’s body so much as the graphic bruises and injuries Lorraine amasses throughout her mission in Berlin. (Leitch’s eye is actually impressively clinical, not exploiting Lorraine but studying her, and even the sex scene isn’t played for audience gratification but for Lorraine’s.)
Some criticism of Blonde is that the plot is kind of dumb and it’s style over substance, but, umm…so is John Wick, and that movie is celebrated for cutting out story in favor of movement. So holding Blonde to the same expectation, it works as well as a John Wick story. It is plotty, because it’s a spy story, but the plot is relatively simple: Lorraine must retrieve a list of known Allied operatives before the Russians. (Yes, it’s pretty much the same as the first Mission: Impossible.) Assigned to help her is a Berlin station chief, Percival (James McAvoy, in a five-alarm spittle performance), and along the way she meets a rookie French agent, Delphine (Sofia Boutella). The plot is dumb in that it only exists to move Lorraine from one action set piece to another, but it functions well enough to not take you out of that action.
And oh boy, is that action FUN. The soundtrack is killer, and Charlize Theron struts and fights her way through Berlin to a greatest hits collection of 1980’s European pop. As brutal as the fights can be, Leitch finds moments of unexpected visual comedy, and the finale fight riffs on “he just won’t die” in a way that gets funnier the longer the scene plays. Atomic Blonde is cool and sexy and has tremendous action scenes, but it’s also trying to make you laugh, and it succeeds. In a summer defined by Wonder Woman, Atomic Blonde is a great companion piece, a hard-R action blowout with a female lead so cool you’ll want to be her by the end of the movie.