Review: Charlize Theron Is The Ultimate Weapon In 'Atomic Blonde'

Over the weekend at Comic-Con, Charlize Theron was the solo centerpiece of the annual "Women Who Kick Ass" panel. Usually a discussion with a lively assortment of badass ladies, Theron held the floor on her own for an hour talking about her career as an action star. The show was full of clips from Mad Max: Fury Road and Atomic Blonde, but not a lot more. Part of the reason is Hollywood's too-early attempt to mold her into a lethal force of nature on the screen, with those attempts dying after the dreadful Aeon Flux. The career of an actress as consistent and lengthy as Theron's will always be cyclical, and she's come back around to being the baddest actress on the silver screen, only now it's a title she's earned.

Theron devastates her foes in the radical espionage flick, Atomic Blonde, putting a hurting on her male opponents that will leave guys both squeamish and strangely aroused.  Working alongside director David Leitch, the stuntman-turned-filmmaker who co-directed the awesome John Wick, Theron is both sensuous and brutal, a cold-as-ice agent perfectly suited for the Cold War. She is the best part of a movie that never surrounds her with a plot worthy of her skills, and plays around with the narrative in a way that is both distracting and dull. Whenever Theron isn't punching somebody in the throat we kinda wish she would go off in search of her next victim.

Based on the graphic novel, The Coldest City, the film takes place at the tail end of the Cold War, mere days before the fall of the Berlin Wall. MI6 super spy Lorraine (Theron) has been sent into Berlin to track down the killer of a fellow agent, who had in his possession a certain list. You know the kind of list I'm talking about, too, one of those lists with every covert operative in the world. You know it because EVERY movie uses it now, and someone really needs to call a moratorium on it. Attacked almost as soon as she touches ground, fighting off her attackers with a high heel in the back of a speeding car, Lorraine is less than enthused by her contact, David Percival (James McAvoy, practically in Filth territory), who is supposed to prevent such things. But he's shady from the ground on up, and Lorraine quickly learns not to trust anybody.

Her story unfolds in fits and starts, told as a flashback while she gets grilled by her boss (Toby Jones) and a CIA operative (John Goodman). It's an unnecessary conceit that hampers any momentum and jumbles a story that lacks the proper engagement. There does seem to be a lackluster attempt at crafting the kind of expansive world of colorful characters seen in John Wick, but it's never given the proper attention. The list is contained on a wristwatch, which is pretty cool, and it never stays on one wrist for too long in such a dangerous city. There's a mysterious double-agent out there called Satchel that every intelligence network is looking for; an operative called Spyglass (Eddie Marsan) uses his big brain to memorize the list in hopes of securing passage out of Berlin; an isolated watchmaker (Til Schweiger) doubles as a Black Market information dealer; and there's even a sexy French operative (The Mummy's Sofia Boutella) who wriggles her way into the action and under Lorraine's bedsheets. Atomic Blonde isn't lacking for style, attitude, and sex appeal, especially with a heavy European punk/synth soundtrack vibing throughout. Too bad nearly all of it is embodied by Theron, and not enough of it can be found anywhere else.

Fortunately, Theron is so good that you can mostly look past the plot, which wants to be John Le Carre but doesn't have the same level of intricacy. While she is, of course, impossible to turn your eyes away from, her Lorraine also looks like the most fatigued, battle-weary agent in all of Germany. It's a role that asks Theron to be sexy while covered head to toe in bruises. You'll understand why Lorraine drinks so much Stoli, that is when she's not soothing her aching body in tubs of ice water. She gets into some incredible scrapes, the nasty, up close and personal kind where every item within reach is a potential weapon. Leitch doesn't shy away from the gruesomeness of Lorraine's kills, either, and you have to respect that the film doesn't ease up just because it has a female star. A lengthy, nearly unbroken battle through a building stairwell has echoes of Gareth Evans' The Raid, with Theron laying the smackdown in a way that would make Iko Uwais jealous. In fact, I'd like to submit to Evans that perhaps a role for Theron in The Raid 3 is in order. 

If there's a problem with the fight choreography it's that we don't get enough of it. Any time Theron gets to hog the spotlight like this it's impossible not to want more. When I look at the best action stars the one thing that sticks out to me is if they are credible. When they punch somebody in the face and knock out their teeth, or kick a guy dead in his chest, does it look legit? I don't know if there's ever been an actress who is as credible an ass-kicker on the big screen as Charlize Theron. She's just got it all down; the fight physics, the psychology, the physicality, all of it. In Atomic Blonde she puts it all together, and while it may not be the knockout punch it should have been, I have a feeling Theron has plenty of fight left in her.

Rating: 3 out of 5