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Atomic Blonde cements Charlize Theron as an action star

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The director of John Wick takes Theron through a spy thriller that finally puts her square in the spotlight

Welcome to Cheat Sheet, our brief breakdown-style reviews of festival films, VR previews, and other special-event releases. A version of this review originally ran on March 13, 2017, in conjunction with the film’s premiere at SXSW.

Charlize Theron became an action star with her role as Furiosa in 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road, but before that, she spent decades fighting for roles in a genre that favors men. She played support in The Italian Job and Reindeer Games, and leads in Aeon Flux, Snow White and the Huntsman, and its sequel. But Theron has never been given a solitary spotlight in a revved-up thriller of her own. That changes with Atomic Blonde.

The film feels like the culmination of Theron’s action-film resume. This time, she’s teamed with John Wick director David Leitch to create a spy thriller with equal parts Cold War intrigue and ‘80s synth pop. Though the film adamantly favors style over substance, there’s more than enough style in every scene to make the film work, thanks in no small part to lush visuals, smart choreography, and extreme commitment on Theron’s part. Fury Road established Theron as an action star, but Atomic Blonde cements it.

Whats the genre?

Atomic Blonde is an unapologetic shoot-’em-up wrapped in an ’80s Cold War spy thriller. Its pulpy plot has plenty of twists and turns, but its raison d’être is a bundle of high-concept action scenes. The similarities with Leitch’s John Wick are flagrant.

Atomic Blonde is also technically a comic-book adaptation, based on Antony Johnston’s The Coldest City. Here’s a book trailer for reference:

What's it about?

In 1989, just before the fall of the Berlin wall, Lorraine Broughton (Theron) is an MI6 agent sent to East Germany to recover the List, the film’s MacGuffin. The List includes secret agents’ identities and other things that would be very dangerous in the wrong hands. Which is to say, everyone — US, UK, USSR, and France, to name a few — wants the List.

Broughton’s on-the-ground contact is David Percival (James McAvoy), a reckless agent who has been undercover in Berlin for a long time. (He’s aptly described as “feral.”) There are a handful of other notable characters in Berlin, such as Sofia Boutella as a local French operative, but the film largely sticks to Broughton, Percival, and a gaggle of people who get their asses kicked.

The film is largely told in media res, with Theron recounting her mission to officials from MI6 (Toby Jones) and the CIA (John Goodman).

What’s it really about?

Atomic Blonde is largely about showcasing intense, well-choreographed fight scenes, more often than not crafted with music-video precision to ’80s British-pop dance tracks. Leitch, whose non-directorial credits include stunt work on virtually every action film in the last two decades, and cinematographer Jonathan Sela (John Wick) emphasize the visuals above everything else. The moments between fights are bathed in bright neon lights amid the bluish hues of Berlin, and the scenes linger long enough to highlight a stunning attention to detail. Even with a scene as simple as Theron getting out of the bathtub and pouring a drink, the film gives each step some impact, and dresses each frame so it’s interesting without sensory overload. Usually.

Atomic Blonde is also, arguably, about creating an extremely badass female action star in a genre with few contemporaries.

Is it good?

Very. Atomic Blonde largely serves as a vehicle for Theron, who is credited as a producer, and joined the project even before Leitch did. She absolutely kills it. Theron adds a subtle layer of emotional depth to a character who is a ruthless, unquestionably talented agent. (In a Q&A following the film’s premiere, Theron said she trained alongside Keanu Reeves, who was preparing for John Wick 2 at the time — and that they sparred together in preparation.) It’s almost the inverse of her role in Mad Max: Fury Road: she starts in control of the situation, then fights to maintain that control.

The fight scenes, particularly one on a staircase (a bit of which is teased in the trailer) are notably longer than brawls in most action films, but they never drag. Credit belongs as much to editing as it does to the choreography. The soundtrack works surprisingly well for a personal-playlist movie — songs like “99 Luftballoons” and “Killer Queen” give battles a toe-tapping intensity. I don’t know why George Michael’s “Father Figure” works so well over a brutal close-quarters encounter between henchmen, but it does.

Though Theron is very much the center of the film, her primary foils — McAvoy and Boutella in particular — clearly relish their over-the-top roles. Jones and Goodman, playing suits for their respective governments, are great in everything they do, but here, there just isn’t much material.

The film only falls short in its story. While the original John Wick started with a simple premise, then added subtle hints of a mysterious world hiding just off stage, Atomic Blonde almost immediately snares itself in a tangled web of intrigue. The twists are compelling enough to propel the movie from one action setpiece to the next, but they never coalesce into a satisfying whole.

What should it be rated?

Unquestionably R. Though the film isn’t gory, the violence is intense at times. The filmmakers don’t shy away from showing the grotesqueness of bruises. There’s a bit of nudity and what I imagine the MPAA will call “intense suggestive moments of eroticism.”

How can I actually watch it?

Atomic Blonde hits theaters July 28th.