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Charlize Theron Owns The Action In ‘Atomic Blonde’

87Eleven’s David Leitch tackles a spy thriller

Photo caption: Charlize Theron takes care of business in the spy thriller "Atomic Blonde."

Photo credit: Focus Features

Charlize Theron takes care of business in the spy thriller "Atomic Blonde."

Companion viewing

“Alien” (1979)

"Stalker" (1979, this is the film playing in the cinema in "Atomic Blonde")

“Yes Madam” (1985)

“La Femme Nikita” (1990)

Mad Max: Fury Road” (2015)

Charlize Theron proves that she can play as rough as any male action star in the new film “Atomic Blonde.”

It should come as no surprise that Theron can hold her own in an action film. One of her first roles, “Two Days in the Valley,” had her in an impressive cat fight. More recently she displayed her willingness to engage in stunt work with the driving in “The Italian Job,” futuristic action in “Aeon Flux,” and both vehicles and fighting in “Mad Max Fury Road.” Now she gets “Atomic Blonde” to really showcase her as an action star.

“Atomic Blonde” comes from the co-director (David Leitch) and action design company (87Eleven) behind “John Wick.” But this time it’s a woman driving the story and the action.

Leitch directs Theron in a spy thriller set just before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Lorraine Broughton (Theron) is an MI6 agent brought in for questioning/debriefing after an assignment that we gather went terribly wrong. As she answers questions, we get the story in flashback. A British agent, who happened to be involved with Broughton, is killed in Berlin. The Cold War is still in effect and she’s sent to East Berlin to investigate the murder and recover a list of covert agents, one of whom is a double agent that’s been causing lots of trouble.

The turmoil of Berlin before the wall fell is a mere backdrop for this story of dangerous deceptions.

“Atomic Blonde” doesn’t have the elegant simplicity of “John Wick’s” tale of a hit man revenging the death of his dog but it’s refreshing to have a woman without super powers taking charge in the male-dominated action genre where she both dishes it out and takes her fair share of abuse.

It’s too bad, though, that Leitch seems to feel the need to sexualize her in a manner that male action stars don’t usually have to deal with (perhaps Jean Claude Van Damme with his skimpy tank tops is the exception) and that the graphic novel seemed to avoid.

The film is based on the graphic novel “The Coldest City,” which used stark black and white visuals to tell a spy story that harkened back to the gritty, somber work John Le Carré and Len Deighton. The only nod to the look of the graphic novel is that Broughton is often dressed in simple black and white clothing.

Photo caption: A panel from the graphic novel "The Coldest City," which "Atomic Blonde" is b...

Photo credit: Oni Press

A panel from the graphic novel "The Coldest City," which "Atomic Blonde" is based on.

Leitch definitely knows how to stage fights but stylistically he seems uncertain about whether he wants “Atomic Blonde” to be a bright, bold action music video or a realistic espionage thriller. And then there are moments when he just seems distracted by how gorgeous he can make Theron look before he beats the crap out of her.

He references MTV as well as the music scene in Berlin and endows the film with a great soundtrack. All that makes the flashy, music video approach easy to succumb to. But the story is more rooted in the unpleasant truth that even as the Cold War comes to an end and sounds the death knell for a certain type of spy, it really doesn’t change anything.

So Leitch is left straddling multiple styles and tones without making a commitment to any one. He also slows the pace in a manner that seems designed to just linger just long enough to make sure we appreciate what he’s doing. So there are a few extra beats on a seductively lit shot of Theron or of some attractive production design.

But when it comes to action, Leitch is in his element. He makes the violence hurt in a realistic way, which is actually rare in most action films. He also has Theron use whatever is at her disposal be it car keys, her stiletto heels, or some rubber tubing.

And despite some over the top moments, he keeps most of the action rooted in the real world so Broughton doesn’t get to bring down a man twice her size and weight with a single punch, she’s got to work at it. Leitch also knows when to take a moment for a humorous break.

Leitch is also fortunate with his cast. Theron is thoroughly convincing in the action but struggles a little with her underwritten part and an accent that shouldn’t seem as self-conscious as it is. As she proved in “Monster,” she has no fear about appearing unattractive and she spends equal time as a sexy spy and as a bloody punching bag. The opening shot of her bruised in a tub of ice, perfectly sets the tone for her character.

James McAvoy is great fun as her contact in Berlin while Toby Jones is appropriately annoying as the MI6 supervisor. Also lending support are Eddie Marsan, Sofia Boutella, John Goodman, Til Schweiger, Barbara Sukowa and the youngest acting Skarsgard so far, Bill. The actors help smooth over some unevenness in the script.

“Atomic Blonde” (rated R for sequences of strong violence, language throughout, and some sexuality/nudity) has flaws but in the end it still delivers a great fix for action junkies and inspires hope that even a woman in her 40s can be the lead in an action movie.

And just an FYI, Leitch is next tapped to direct "Deadpool 2," that should be fun.

Charlize Theron proves that she can play as rough as any male action star in the new film “Atomic Blonde.”

Check out some more Cinema Junkie recommendations for the coming week.

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