You’d have to go back to Jason Statham’s human punching bag Chev Chelios in Crank to find an action hero who gets brutalized with the same constant ferocity as Charlize Theron in Atomic Blonde. At the meeting where her character, Lorraine Broughton, gets her marching orders — which involve recovering a stolen list of British intelligence assets in Berlin a few days before the wall comes down in 1989 — an MI6 superior lists among his star agent’s Very Particular Set of Skills™ a talent for "evasive maneuvers," but most of the punches thrown her way over the next two hours connect and then some.
The novelty of David Leitch’s flashy new film lies not so much in its focus on an implacable distaff ass-kicker as its insistence that she takes her licks (as opposed to, say, Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman, who emerges from No Man’s Land without so much as a scratch). It’s a nice visual motif to repeatedly show one of the world’s most striking, physically distinctive actresses lying in a bathtub filled with ice, but given what she goes through over the course of the film, her immersions constitute the bare minimum of self-care.
The title of the graphic novel that gives Atomic Blonde its origins is "The Coldest City," and beginning with that first ice bath — shot by cinematographer Jonathan Sela through a chilly, silvery-blue filter—the film has been systematically drained of any and all warmth: It’s about nasty characters plying a cynical trade against a backdrop where the sun doesn’t shine.
In theory, there’s something bracing about a summer movie with a subzero sensibility, and Leitch, a former stunt coordinator who codirected John Wick (2014) (but didn’t get an official credit due to DGA rules), has done his best to honor author Anthony Johnston’s grim comic-book vision. But the reason John Wick worked so well was that beneath its cool surface there was a warm, squishy, beating heart: The bad guys killed Keanu’s dog, and he made them pay for it. There’s no such sentimentality in Atomic Blonde, and the film suffers for it. "Everybody who gets close to you dies," snarks a villain to Lorraine late in the game, and while he’s right, his observation seems wasted on a character who doesn’t betray feeling of any kind, whose natural state is comfortably numb.
It should be said that Theron is good at playing this sort of part, whether as the hardened desert warrior in Fury Road or a literal ice queen in the Snow White films, in which her acting suggests what Joan Crawford would have done if she’d been alive for CGI. Her specialty has always been to give her characters an impenetrable outer shell — as in her Oscar-winning turn as Aileen Wuornos in Monster, which was achieved under layers of heavy makeup — and Lorraine’s impeccable exterior is also her defining trait. When someone tries to throw a wrench into her investigation by sending a phalanx of cops to an apartment she’s searching, she takes his betrayal in lighthearted style. "If I’d have known," she says later, after single-handedly taking out what seems like half of Berlin’s police force, "I would have worn a different outfit."
There are two sequences in Atomic Blonde where our heroine lays waste to multiple foes at once; the aforementioned set piece in the apartment, which has been assembled in brisk, quick-cut strokes, and a subsequent, considerably longer confrontation that moves from a stairwell to a speeding car to a nearly frozen river in the space of a single, unbroken take. The latter is undoubtedly the film’s money shot, and one of the most amazingly well-acted and choreographed fight scenes in recent history: Its closest competitors are the side-scrolling hallway battle in Oldboy and the bathhouse smackdown in Eastern Promises (with an honorable mention going to the finale of The Raid). What’s so enjoyable about this scene is the contrast between the dexterity of the camera movements and the increasing clumsiness of the combatants, especially Lorraine, who takes a hellacious beating while fending off six different attackers, on top of which she’s trying to keep a sympathetic Stasi agent (Eddie Marsan) from bleeding to death on her watch.
As long as Theron is in motion, she’s a compelling presence, but Atomic Blonde is also heavy on plot, in a way that weighs it down instead of grounding it. The presence in the cast of the British character actor Toby Jones evokes the terrific 2011 film adaptation of John le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and at times, it feels like Leitch is trying for a similarly gritty and politicized espionage-thriller vibe. There are speeches about the futility of the Cold War and the dangerous legacy of totalitarianism; the story is punctuated by news broadcasts about the (literally) collapsing national divide between East and West; the meddlesome tendencies of American foreign policy are embodied by John Goodman as a CIA fixer dismissed by Lorraine with foul language in a posh accent.
Such efforts at depth are sincere but beside the point in a film whose real mandate is flashy diversion. And it’s hard to reconcile the script’s attempts at seriousness with the fundamental trashiness of the material, or the glibly ironic use of period pop music on the soundtrack. It’s always good to hear New Order and the Clash, of course (as well as ’Til Tuesday’s chugging "Voices Carry") but having Nena’s "99 Luftballons" play alongside a guy getting beaten to death is little more than a (new) wave in the direction of Reservoir Dogs in a film that also rips off QT’s killer Inglourious Basterds cue of David Bowie’s "Cat People (Putting Out the Fire)." It’s also bizarre that Leitch included George Michael’s "Father Figure" in his ’80s mixtape, since Key and Peele already featured that song in Keanu — a movie that is of course an extended tribute to John Wick.
Late in the film, we see vintage footage of Kurt Loder on MTV News, taking a break from covering the fall of the Berlin Wall to wonder whether sampling is going to be the major artistic innovation of the 1990s or just a clever way to justify plagiarism. It’s a funny moment, but just because Atomic Blonde acknowledges its own derivativeness doesn’t excuse it or redeem it, in the end.