A word of advice to moviegoers this weekend: Don't try too hard to follow along with the plot of Charlize Theron action thriller “Atomic Blonde.” Just sit down, strap in, and enjoy the beautiful chaos you see on screen and hear all around you.
Movies set in the ‘80s tend to focus on Reagan’s suburban America, a materialistic place filled with malls, bad haircuts, and a desperate attempt to return to a more conservative social order. In short, the time period is pretty lame; anyone who gets a kick out of the small town of Hawkins in “Stranger Things” does so out of nostalgia or irony. “Atomic Blonde,” meanwhile, is set in the gloomy, dirty streets of Berlin circa 1989, which were often dangerous -- especially on the east side of the Berlin Wall -- but now in retrospect look badass, with an exciting grit that is always alluring from afar.
British secret agent Lorraine Broughton (Theron) is dispatched into this turbulent, grimy world with an ever-expanding mission: She has to retrieve the body of a fellow MI6 agent who was killed by the KGB, rendezvous with a potentially rogue and definitely unhinged Berlin station chief (James McAvoy), and recover a watch with a list of every agent operating in the Cold War. It’s an unenviable task, but Broughton is seemingly superhuman; she’s a quiet badass, steely and smart and tough with a soft side she can deploy with devastating results.
Theron has proven herself to be a major action star in recent years thanks to a part as Furiosa in “Mad Max: Fury Road," plus her villainous role in the latest “Fast and the Furious” movie. But this is a different kind of action role altogether, one that required intensive training for brutal hand-to-hand combat.
“Atomic Blonde” has been compared to "John Wick," in part because it’s directed by David Leitch, who co-directed the first “Wick” flick, but there’s something even more kickass about the action in this movie. Keanu Reeves laid out his share of henchmen and thugs, but the fights weren’t nearly as down and dirty as the ones in “Blonde.”
Lorraine may face off against fewer adversaries, but as KGB agents, they’re far more dangerous. And that makes for some incredible action sequences and fight scenes, with crazy car chases, shoot outs, and straight up brawls. Theron takes a beating, especially during one stand-out sequence in an old apartment building, which is part of a longer collection of thrilling scenes that track action in a single take through East Berlin. But she dishes out the rough stuff as hard or harder than she gets it, extending her Oscar-winning range even further.
McAvoy is another highlight. He owns the part of James Percival, an MI6 agent who has gone from upstanding, clean-cut representative of the crown to a feral animal of the Berlin underworld. The first time we meet him, he’s trading whiskey for secrets, and his apartment is filled with contraband and bribe fodder. Lorraine doesn’t like him from the start, but the bigger question is whether she can trust him.
“Atomic Blonde” also has an awesome soundtrack, filled with tunes from bands that are cooler than the groups you hear during ‘80s night at your local bar. New Order, Echo and the Bunnymen, Depeche Mode, and Ministry lead the way, although Duran Duran and George Michael also make appearances.
The movie has its flaws, first and foremost the confusing plot, which even for a spy movie twists a bit too much without offering bread crumbs to astute viewers. And there is very little character development — Lorraine is supposed to be guarded, but she’s a damn cipher. Even the James Bond movies have tried more recently to give 007 some emotional depth, and John Wick has his dead dog.
And yet, you don’t have to think too hard to still enjoy the movie, which is definitely a great time -- and definitely makes you feel like a wimp. Charlize forever.