Atomic Blonde is an amalgam of tired and unsavory tropes – cult graphic novel adaptation, Cold War spy thriller, breathlessly brutal real-time actioner – that after one to many beige retreads, any one facet of its personality should tell us exactly what we’re in for. But this aint beige, it’s neon – and all those cliches are tossed out for something quite inspired. Surprise: with slithering freshness, the film is both the most chic and thrilling film of the summer.
Not least of what makes Atomic Blonde bleed fluorescent is its megastar Charlize Theron. Set in the days before the Berlin Wall’s fall, Theron stars as MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton, charged to extract a list of double agents with the help of fellow agent David Percival (James McAvoy). As Lorraine, the actress is gives exactly what we adore her for with brute force: idiosyncratic specificity, fearless physicality, and effortless high glamour. But her effort is seen without compromise in her unflinching physical acts of daring, delivering one of the most agile and exhaustive combat performances in recent memory. The film turns on the minutiae of her stoic gaze as much as it does her punishing fists. She is, quite simply, our greatest action star.
Luckily the film has both Theron and a keen sense of how to make us root for the evasive, but brutal Lorraine. Introduced in an ice bath and covered in a bevy of bruises to the defiant sound of David Bowie’s “Cat People”, she’s instantly defined by her resilience and power. The following film is never short on building her intimidating presence through uber-cool iconography, though it falls more on the actress to illuminate her beyond the stone-faced spy presentation. The film has significantly less interest in providing something fresh beyond its fabulous pastiche – the actual story is rather familiar and sometimes a dull distraction, from Sofia Boutella’s French spy stalker/love interest to some fairly incongruous villain side-story business.
But this isn’t your grandfather’s spy tale. Atomic Blonde drips with vodka, cigarettes, and the bass of electronic grooviness. Though it trades in Cold War-era benchmarks, the film presents a grungier, sexier German underground more indebted to MTV than the actual headlines. It’s also pretty deliciously gay.
Gay in that it has an entire sequence dedicated to Lorraine beating an apartment full of men with a rubber hose as “Father Figure” plays in the background. Atomic Blonde isn’t a camp extravaganza, but it does indulge in a heavy dose of unignorable gay pasttimes like diva worship and electronic synth dance tracks. Which is what makes the porny male gaze of its lesbian sex a confusing sit, even moreso for its badass gender politicking elsewhere – Theron and Boutella are emotionally connected, but their scenes can’t escape a Cinemaxy sheen.
As the denouement becomes briefly convoluted with more double-crosses than you can keep up with, the film feels somewhat burdened by presenting an actual story. However, the colorful rush of the bopping soundtrack and Theron’s immense presence make this an actioner ready for repeat viewings and idolatry. Agent Lorraine Broughton is going to kick your ass.