In ‘Atomic Blonde,’ Theron heats up the Cold War

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - ENTERTAINMENT - BY JAKE COYLE

Peo­ple don’t usu­ally move very fast in Cold War thrillers. Mostly, the only time any­one runs is right be­fore they get shot in the back. Most of the “ac­tion’’ hap­pens in a film cabi­net, down a back al­ley or with a si­lencer. The clas­sic Cold War tale — which is to say a John le Carre one — is char­ac­ter­ized by a deathly still­ness: grave faces meet­ing un­der grey clouds.

This is not quite so in “Atomic Blonde,’’ a post-war thriller set in the fi­nal mo­ments of the Cold War (1989 Ber­lin) star­ring Char­l­ize Theron as the MI6 spy Lor­raine Broughton. She’s not your tra­di­tional Euro­pean op­er­a­tor. Let’s just say that if Theron’s Broughton turned up in “Tin­ker Tai­lor Sol­dier Spy,’’ the old boys would’ve soiled their trench coats.

Broughton is black and blue at the open­ing of David Leitch’s “Atomic Blonde’’ and the first thought is that Theron must be lick­ing her wounds from play­ing Fu­riosa in “Mad Max: Fury Road.’’ If that film didn’t prove that Theron is to­day’s most badass ac­tion star, “Atomic Blonde’’ — while not any­where near the ki­netic ex­plo­sion of “Fury Road’’ — will cer­tainly make it of­fi­cial.

The bruises turn out to be from the story she soon re­lates. Broughton spends the movie in a testy in­ter­ro­ga­tion with her MI6 boss (Toby Jones) and a CIA chief (John Good­man). The mis­sion she re­counts is her dis­patch­ing to West Ber­lin to as­sist the sta­tion chief there, David Per­ci­val (a zany James McAvoy), in re­cov­er­ing a miss­ing list with the names of ev­ery Bri­tish as­set — some­thing the Rus­sians are rather keen to ob­tain.

So far, that might sound some­what le Carre-like. But it’s not min­utes af­ter be­ing picked up from the air­port that Lor­raine finds her­self jab­bing an as­sailant with her heel, push­ing him out of a mov­ing car, and forc­ing the driver into flip­ping the car over.

Leitch is a vet­eran stunt­man who co-di­rected the ac­tion hit “John Wick,’’ in which Keanu Reeves wrecks end­less vengeance on those who killed his dog. The back­drop is more lav­ish in “Atomic Blonde,’’ but the hand-to-hand com­bat is no less pri­mary. Whereas an­other spy thriller might grad­u­ally go deeper into its com­plex net­works of al­le­giances, “Atomic Blonde,’’ based on Antony John­ston’s graphic novel “The Cold­est City,’’ stays on the sur­face, keeps the body count in­creas­ing and the ‘80s score blar­ing.

And, man, does it blare. The sound­track, es­pe­cially early in the film, is blud­geon­ingly prom­i­nent.

The com­bi­na­tion of vi­o­lence with ‘80s pop hits is, to Leitch, an in­ex­haustible clev­er­ness. So if you want to see some­one fa­tally beaten with a skate­board to the tune of Nena’s “99 Luft­bal­lons’’ or a stab­bing set to ‘Til Tues­day’s “Voices Carry,’’ you have fi­nally found your film.

“Atomic Blonde’’ is largely a va­cant, hy­per-stylis­tic romp that trades on the thick Cold War at­mos­phere of far bet­ter films (not to men­tion “The Amer­i­cans’’). It’s all dag­ger, no cloak. But it has two things go­ing for it.

One is Leitch’s fa­cil­ity with an ac­tion scene. The film, tech­ni­cally speak­ing, gets off to a rough start when a body is sent fly­ing by a ram­ming car in the kind of bla­tantly un­re­al­is­tic CGI fling that ru­ins movies. But he later goes for a much more bravura scene in a seem­ingly un­cut se­quence in which Broughton takes on a num­ber of as­sailants on a stair­well in a fight that even­tu­ally spills out into the streets.

It’s easy to see that Leitch is aim­ing for a more ac­ro­batic ver­sion of the fa­mous cor­ri­dor scene from Park Chan-wook’s “Old­boy.’’

And there’s no doubt it will have some fans cheer­ing for its au­da­cious seam­less­ness. But the vir­tu­os­ity on dis­play is spoiled by its own showoff-y self-aware­ness. The se­quence, a her­metic burst of film­mak­ing fi­nesse, has noth­ing to do with the rest of film; it’s just a call­ing card for a film­mak­ers’ high­light reel.

AP PHOTO

Char­l­ize Theron ar­rives at the L.A. pre­miere of “Atomic Blonde” at The Theatre at Ace Ho­tel on July 24 in Los Angeles.

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