Atomic Blonde
Spray Painted, Neon Action

Action movies—particularly the R-rated ones—have been going through something of a transition recently.  While the past decade was dominated by the shaky camera work and rapid editing popularized by the Jason Bourne movies, movies like 2011’s The Raid: Redemption and 2014’s John Wick have returned action movies to a time when the camera followed the action, rather than took part in it.  While looking back, these films have also moved the genre forward by adding a definite, almost balletic style to the action and a smoothness to the images presented on screen.  The latest example to hit theaters is Atomic Blonde, starring Charlize Theron, shortly after she completely stole Mad Max: Fury Road from its title character.

Theron plays Lorraine Broughton, an MI6 agent who is sent to Berlin toward the end of the Cold War to recover the body of a recently killed agent.  Not content with simply picking up the body, Lorraine forces a bureaucratic delay in the body’s release so that she can stay in town and investigate the death of a man who was not only her fellow agent, but a lover.  She meets up with James McAvoy’s David Percival, who is MI6’s man on the ground in Berlin and is attempting to secure a list of double agents that has fallen into the wrong hands.

Charlize Theron as Lorraine in Atomic BlondeThe movie is told in the framework of a flashback as Lorraine explains to her bosses how everything went down.  By introducing us to Lorraine after her mission, the movie does a smart thing and wisely shows us that Lorraine is not some invincible, superhuman hero, but a real human being who is about to suffer some severe cuts and bruises following the action which the movie will go back in time to show us.  This helps us to relate to Lorraine more than we might have had the movie simply opened getting her instructions for her new mission.

The action scenes are certainly the highlight of the movie and the centerpiece is a lengthy staircase brawl turned car chase that is filmed in a way that it all appears to take place in a single shot.  As opposed to the hundred or so cuts we might get in a similar action scene in a Jason Bourne movie, this movie presents us with none.  This allows the excitement to be generated from the action itself, which is incredibly staged and must have required many hours of preparation and training.  It also allows us to believe that everything we see done by Lorraine on screen was done by Charlize herself and not a team of stunt performers.

Charlize reportedly trained for this role alongside Keanu Reeves when he was preparing for John Wick: Chapter 2.  Much of the pre-release buzz for Atomic Blonde has been in comparing it to the John Wick films, but as it turns out, they are quite different.  Whereas the action in the Wick franchise is mostly firearm based—I’ve heard the term Gun-Fu used—the majority of the action in Atomic Blonde is hand-to-hand combat.  There are guns fired here and there, but for the most part the action is centered on Charlize punching and kicking her way through Russian bad guys.  The action sequences also make good use of their environments with combatants using whatever they can find as a weapon.  One scene that has Lorraine using a hose to deal with her many attackers felt like something you might see in a Jackie Chan movie.

The excitement of the action scenes helps to make up for the fact that the movie’s plot can be challenge to follow.  Instead of the simple revenge plot of John Wick or the fight your way to the crime lord at the top of the high-rise device that drives The Raid: Redemption, Atomic Blonde is a spy thriller filled to the brim with all the double-crosses and triple-agents that tend to occupy those films.  By the end of Atomic Blonde, I was not exactly sure who was good, who was bad, or who was working for whom.

Atomic Blonde is a very stylish looking movie with a definite eighties aesthetic, but I liked how grounded the movie felt at times as well.  I liked that there is a moment in the middle of a fight scene when Lorraine and her opponent both take a moment to catch their breath before continuing to pummel each other and I liked that the movie took place in the shadows of a well-known historical event.  The movie also had a couple of well-timed moments of humor and a very strong performance by Theron.  Just don’t ask me to explain who is on whose side.

Atomic Blonde is rated R for “sequences of strong violence, language throughout, and some sexuality/nudity.”  All of that make this a solid R rating and there were even some bloody moments that felt even a little gratuitous.

Courtesy of a local publicist, Jeff attended a promotional screening of Atomic Blonde.