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Set in the Berlin of 1989, in the tense days and hours before the Wall’s rupture, Atomic Blonde is less of a coherent movie experience and more of a show reel of Theron’s awesome abilities as an action star — which is not a surprise, given her badass turns in Mad Max: Fury Road and this summer’s The Fate of the Furious.
Theron’s latest actionertakes her furious skills to the madder max, in her role of MI6 super spy Lorraine Broughton. She’s tasked with retrieving a missing MacGuffin that could “extend the Cold War another 40 years” if it fell into the wrong hands.
And this is indeed a hands-on assignment, as Broughton demonstrates to any man or woman foolish enough to try to stop her. She can handle a gun and she’s ready to shoot to kill, but she seems to prefer bare-knuckle brawling to get the job done. She’s not afraid to take a punch or endure a black eye.
Broughton also employs an array of improvised lethal weapons. Stiletto heels may be very hard to walk in — or so I’ve been told — but they’re a dandy tool for clawing, ripping and puncturing assailants, as our heroine happily demonstrates. Car keys and corkscrews work, too, and one fight sequence involves a garden hose improbably found in an upper-level flat.
When Broughton pauses for breath, it’s usually to take another drag on a cigarette or to down another glass of Stolichnaya vodka on the rocks. She doesn’t care if her drinks are shaken or stirred, as long as they’re as frosty as she is. She also likes to bathe in tubs filled with ice.
As part of the MacGuffin-retrieval gig, Broughton and Berlin-based operative David Percival (James McAvoy) must ensure that a Stasi squealer (Eddie Marsan) keeps breathing. This part of the alleged plot creaks like a rusty Trabant, as McAvoy simply hits cruise control on his sleazy-character routine and Marsan does his familiar shifty-eyed weasel act.
The movie jolts alive whenever Theron is in motion, clobbering an endless parade of Stasi agents and other creeps, one of whom should be called Rasputin. The fight sequences are set to familiar hits from the 1980s, by the likes of New Order, David Bowie and George Michael.
Atomic Blonde at times resembles an extended 1980s music video, and there’s an era-specific movie homage: the white trench coat and shades Theron wears in one sequence recalls Michael Caine’s lethal cross-dresser from Dressed to Kill.
It’s about the fighting, not the writing, although it would have been nice if screenwriter Kurt Johnstad had roused himself to pen better dialogue than the hoary advice “trust no one.”
This life wisdom is imparted to Broughton in the briefing and debriefing scenes that frame the movie, shades of Basic Instinct, in which the battered and bruised — but still cocky — agent schools two gormless spy agency interrogators, played by Toby Jones and John Goodman.