In “Atomic Blonde,” Theron heats up the Cold War

The Denver Post - - LIFE & CULTURE - By Jake Coyle

★★55 Rated R. 114 min­utes.

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 gray 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.

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.

But the other as­set of “Atomic Blonde” is al­to­gether more for­mi­da­ble. Theron doesn’t so much as dom­i­nate “Atomic Blonde” as steadily sub­ju­gate ev­ery other soul in the film — and those in the au­di­ence — into her com­plete com­mand. Like her more timid le Carre fore­bear­ers, there’s no plea­sure in her vic­to­ries. There’s only ruth­less sur­vival in a grim game.

She is most def­i­nitely atomic, but I’d try to do bet­ter than call­ing her a blonde.

Char­l­ize Theron and James McAvoy in “Atomic Blonde.”

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