To the extent that there are James Bonds in the real world — dashing, highly skilled secret agents who can kill enemies with a rolled-up newspaper — surely by now there are also Jane Bonds. Yet Hollywood has offered few lady spies worthy of the comparison, leaving a void now filled by “Atomic Blonde,” a banging Cold War thriller starring Charlize Theron as an MI6 agent who could break every bone in 007’s body (especially Pierce Brosnan).
Her name is Broughton, Lorraine Broughton. She comes from a graphic novel called “The Coldest City” (by Antony Johnston and Sam Hart), adapted for the screen by Kurt Johnstad (“300”) and directed by David Leitch, the stuntman who co-directed “John Wick” with a similar (though flashier) way of presenting stylized, well-choreographed violence. Most of the action is set in Berlin in November 1989, on both sides of the Wall that is days away from being torn down. Sometime after this, Lorraine is back in London telling her MI6 boss (Toby Jones) and an unwelcome CIA visitor (John Goodman, always welcome) everything that happened in those final days of a divided Berlin.
She’s sent to Germany when a fellow MI6 agent, Gasciogne (Sam Hargrave), turns up dead and a valuable piece of intel goes missing. That intel: a list of all the secret agents on both sides, i.e., the same list that falls into enemy hands in 75% of all spy movies. (Maybe they shouldn’t keep an actual list?) Lorraine connects with MI6’s David Percival (James McAvoy), a manic loose cannon who has “gone native,” selling Jordache jeans and other Western treasure on the black market in East Berlin. They are in pursuit of the list and of a suspected double agent known only as Satchel, all while evading the various Germans and Soviets who want to kill them.
It’s standard espionage fare, diverting from the formula only in being set in a very specific time and place and having a lead spy who’s female (though it’s worth noting that no one in the film seems to find that remarkable). The story adheres comfortably to the James Bond model, save for a few turns that I shan’t reveal and a sleek, high-tech modernity that is at odds (though not unpleasantly so) with the very, VERY ’80s pop soundtrack.
It’s loaded with memorable supporting characters, none of whom can be entirely trusted (neither can Lorraine or Percival, for that matter), some of them known only by codenames: Spyglass (Eddie Marsan), a Stasi agent and informant who wants to defect to the West; the Watchmaker (Til Schweiger), whose precision instruments are used as hiding places for top-secret intel; Delphine (Sofia Boutella), a mysterious Frenchwoman trailing Lorraine; Bremovych (Roland Moller), a cruel Stasi officer who is introduced in a scene where he savagely beats a teenage underling with the lad’s own skateboard.
At the center of it all is Charlize Theron, confirming the action heroine bona fides she submitted in “Mad Max: Fury Road” and staking a claim on the title that was once supposed to belong to Angelina Jolie. There may be actresses with more physical strength and agility than Theron (mostly former fighters like Ronda Rousey), but none currently working who are better ACTRESSES. A spy thriller can only get so far on plot twists and broken bones without a convincing performance by the lead spy. (McAvoy is good too, crazy and entertaining but not over the top.)
And anyway, there’s a soon-to-be-legendary sequence in “Atomic Blonde” that makes me doubt my own assertion about there being tougher women in Hollywood than Theron. It’s shot in one continuous take (or made to look that way), following Lorraine through stairwells and apartments as she fights one bad guy after, ultimately spilling out onto the street and into a getaway car. The technical choreography involved is impressive enough — the benefit of having a stuntman in charge of the movie — but even more eye-popping is how much of the tumbling, falling, and fighting Theron appears to have done herself. This crunchy, crackling sequence, one of the rare parts of the film not accompanied by music, is awe-inspiring in its brutal excessiveness. How long can this go on?? I hope Lorraine Broughton has a successful post-Cold War career and lives long enough to team up with John Wick.
B+ (1 hr., 55 min.; )