You know what I love? Blockbuster movies telling small stories—ones where the entire world isn’t at stake, and the third act isn’t a clusterfuck of sensory assaults, where portals open into the sky, and inconceivable green-screen theatrics are employed. Summer movies used to be a healthy mix of gigantic blockbusters, with smaller action movies peppered in to give us a limited but slightly varied palette of films to enjoy. In fact, there was a time before computers started making every movie look the same that blockbuster cinema was a relatively small affair. I remember the big deal of seeing “Independence Day” in 1996 because it felt massive—cities being blown up and the world being laid to waste by alien invaders. At some point every studio was upping the stakes until every damn movie was about an end-of-the-world scenario (I’m looking at you, Marvel).
Some of my favorite summer movies were smaller films and weren’t playing with ginormous stakes; “Lethal Weapon” and “Die Hard” immediately spring to mind. Action films packed a lot of bang for your buck and kept stories at a nice, brutal, human level. We’re starting to see the return to the hard-core action movie thanks to the success of John Wick. “Atomic Blonde” is a fantastic piece of action cinema; it features great scenery-chewing actors and drips with a thick layer of neon style.
Lorraine (Charlize Theron) is a tough-as-nails agent for the British government. When a fellow agent and pillow partner ends up dead, she’s sent to Berlin to find a valuable list of undercover spy operations and potential double-agent orchestrating its theft. She arrives in West Berlin and immediately stumbles into a game of subterfuge, backstabbing and double crosses that would make anyone’s head spin. Oh, before I go on, allow me to clarify some statements for our millennial readers.
1. “West Berlin” is one half of the city of Berlin, which during the Cold War was split into the cities of West and East Berlin. The West was aligned with America and its NATO allies, while the East was part of the Soviet Union’s communist block. These cities were separated by a large fence called “The Berlin Wall.”
2. The “Cold War” was an ideological conflict between the Soviet Union and United States, who greatly disagreed on how society should be governed. The period of frigid relations caused a great deal of consternation in global politics but provided lots of opportunities for Tom Clancy novels and James Bond movies.
3. “Soviet Union” is what Russia used to be called before the fall of communism in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s. (See Scorpion’s “Winds of Change” music video.)
Lorianne meets up with Perceival (James McAvoy), a deep-cover British agent who’s spent a little too much time in Berlin and has embraced the chaotic atmosphere that possesses the broken city. They don’t trust each other, even though their goal is the same: to get the list back before it falls into the wrong hands. Unfortunately, Lorraine has a hard time figuring out to whom “the wrong hands” belong. Once we learn the stakes, and Lorianne sets off on her mission, the snowball begins to roll downhill, quickly gaining traction and mass. Every step she takes to learn the truth brings her one step closer to losing everything.
“Atomic Blonde” is a blast from start to finish. It’s crazy and indulgent and never forgets the fundamental lessons of action filmmaking: Make it look cool and don’t forget to have some fun. Charlize Theron feels so natural in this role. She’s cool as ice but not the kind of atypical indestructible action hero that populates so many Hollywood movies. I mentioned “Lethal Weapon” and “Die Hard” before because the action films gave their protagonists a beating, and the wear and tear of their battles showed. “Atomic Blonde” isn’t afraid to show its scars.
Hats off to Theron, who seems to be making a real effort at this stage in her career. There’s an action scene near the end of the movie that feels so raw—without a lot of cut-a-ways to conceal it. It’s like we’re watching Theron—not a stunt double—deliver and absorb a beating. Lorianne is dragged through a cold, brutal hell throughout the course of the story, and it does a great job making audiences feel invested in the character.
I have only a couple of small gripes, mostly involving some resolutions that felt a little too easy. Overall, I really liked “Atomic Blonde” because of its great performances, terrific action, a nostalgia-fueled soundtrack of ‘80s hits, and an admirable job by all involved to create something fascinating, fashionable and fun.