In 2015 a legend decided to revive a franchise, lying dormant for nearly 30-years and in doing so created the best action film of the decade. That man was George Miller and that revival was Mad Max: Fury Road. At the center of the film was the titular Max played by Tom Hardy (in one of a seemingly endless string of performances where his beautiful face is covered by a mask) but the film had other priorities. The real beating heart was Imperator Furiosa played by the always riveting Charlize Theron. Theron had long before proven her acting chops but had taken aim elsewhere: action films. Since then she’s lurked around Vin Diesel as the nefarious hacker Cipher in The Fate of the Furious and now is taking aim at the KGB as MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton in Atomic Blonde.
The best part about Theron’s recent surge into the action realm is absolutely no one should question it. She is so convincing, so physically powerful that the stupendously lame barstool argument, “girls can’t beat up guys” will disappear after watching her. Atomic Blonde is being advertised as sort of a “Jane Wick” but is actually far from it.
Drenched in graphic novel style, the film takes place in pre-wall destruction Berlin. Agent Broughton has been given an assignment that crosses said wall to retrieve an almost mythical list of undercover agents and their covert monikers. It’s said to be held by a man named – Spyglass (Eddie Marsan) – a native of East Berlin who is mostly just a sheepish everyman who desperately wants out of the crumbling state. Her contact is Percival (James McAvoy – growing his hair back from Split,) a fellow MI6 operative who has ingratiated himself in Eastern-Berlin culture. He’s like a steam punk information gatherer, complete with sleeveless sweater vests and long fur coats. Together they need to move Spyglass to the West while avoiding the KGB and seemingly every other agency.
Atomic Blonde uses a very stilted framing device as Broughton is interrogated by an MI6 and CIA superior (Toby Jones and John Goodman) about her actions in Berlin. It’s essentially a slightly less lazy narration than…actual narration and constantly stunts the momentum of the storytelling. This allows Director David Leitch to pile on the double and triple crosses in such a roundabout way that it’s much more confusing than it even needs to be.
But that’s not why anyone will go to Atomic Blonde. They’ll go for the action and that’s where it delivers. Theron reportedly trained for months to pull off the majority of the stunts and her hard work shows. There are 4 major set pieces culminating in a climactic 10+ minute single-shot fight scene through a stairwell that is destined to be on every all-time great fight scene lists. It’s The Raid: Redemption level action filmmaking that leaves a mark.
The best thing that can be said about the action is it hurts. As Broughton makes her way through waves of KGB you feel every punch, fling across the room and gunshot. Broughton leaves most fights with a bloodied face, battered cheek bones and bruises covering her torso. She dunks herself in ice baths at night and pounds vodka and burns heaters by day, it’s her version of self-medication.
Atomic Blonde doesn’t reinvent the wheel, it simply puts a woman behind it. In 2017 that’s happened more in big blockbusters than I can remember and the results speak for themselves. Theron has thrown her hat in the ring as the best action star of the decade and at this point there are few challengers. While watching the film I kept thinking how small the conversation felt about who the next Bond will be. I was watching someone ten-times more bad ass and liberated than that stuffy bloke in a tux. If they ever met she’d whoop is ass anyway, then take his girl.