About halfway through “Atomic Blonde,” Lorraine Broughton (
There are all sorts of ways to interpret this bold juxtaposition, which can be defended as homage, attacked as desecration or (most accurately) diagnosed as evidence of this movie's hopeless infatuation with its own fabulous retro style. Obsessive "Stalker" fans might offer up a more literal-minded reading: Charlize Theron is, like, totally in the Zone!
They’ll get no argument from me. It’s been thrilling to see Theron ascend to the very top ranks of Hollywood action stars, her position confirmed by her magnificent turn as Imperator Furiosa in “
Maybe that's not entirely fair. Adapted by Kurt Johnstad from Antony Johnston's and Sam Hart's graphic-novel series "The Coldest City," "Atomic Blonde" may be a delirious exercise in outré nonsense, but it can also be a brutally effective action picture when the inspiration strikes. Its director is David Leitch, a longtime stuntman and second unit whiz who served as an uncredited co-director on the terrific "John Wick."
Leitch's chops are amply confirmed by the stunningly attenuated action sequence that serves as the new movie's raison d'être. For nearly eight minutes, Lorraine takes out a gang of KGB thugs (occasionally one will let out a vaguely Russian-accented "oof!") while covering what appears to be every square inch of an apartment building, demolishing furniture and laying waste to a perfectly lovely stairwell in the process.
It's a legitimately jaw-dropping scene, shot (by "John Wick" cinematographer Jonathan Sela) and digitally tweaked to look as though it were achieved in a single unbroken take, in the look-Ma-no-edits style popularized by movies like "Children of Men" and "The Revenant." As gimmicks go, it's a hugely enjoyable one. Leitch is a master at delineating visual space and a scrupulous observer of the laws of physics, and the absence of obvious cutting makes it all the easier to appreciate the brutal realism and steadily mounting crescendo of the violence.
Speaking of physics: If every action must yield an equal and opposite reaction, that might explain how, in contrast with the hyper-clarity of its shooting and staging, the plot of “Atomic Blonde” should be such a murky, nonsensical blur. I’ll try to keep the exposition brief, even if the movie, at 115 minutes, does not. Late in 1989, mere days before the
Lorraine forms an uneasy alliance with David Percival (
With David Hasselhoff in town and “Tear down this wall” blaring from every TV, Berlin is clearly facing a tense geopolitical moment, as we’re reminded by an overly knotty framing device that finds Lorraine narrating most of the story in flashback for an MI6 superior (
There's nothing especially wrong with that. It's far from unpleasant to watch Lorraine choreograph her martial-arts moves to George Michael's "Father Figure," or brood up a storm while listening to a moody electropop cover of "99 Luftballons." (Also on the soundtrack: Depeche Mode, New Order and the theme from "Tetris.") In one scene Lorraine orders a Stoli on the rocks — well, in many scenes, but bear with me — in a bar drenched in so much red lighting, you wonder if she's stumbled into an outtake from "The Neon Demon."
Theron's magnetism has many layers, even when it's not in service of a particularly interesting character. Given the title's in-jokey reference to Blondie's "Atomic," it's likely no coincidence that Lorraine, with her platinum hair and black thigh-high boots, seems visually modeled on the singer Debbie Harry — an influence that weighs more heavily on the character than anything so piddling as personality or back story.
And so what? Personality and back story are for wusses. Or for men. Or for James Bond. Lorraine Broughton welcomes your box-office dollars, but the last thing she requires is your sympathy, or your engagement, or any response more complex than a simple appreciation for the beautiful, inscrutable, narrative-defiant object that she is. Maybe she does belong in a Tarkovsky movie after all.
Rating: R, for sequences of strong violence, language throughout and some sexuality/nudity
Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes
Playing: In general release