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Review: Stylish ‘Atomic Blonde’ heats up the Cold War but lacks spy-film substance |

Review: Stylish ‘Atomic Blonde’ heats up the Cold War but lacks spy-film substance

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Charlize Theron is an undercover secret agent in the action film ‘Atomic Blonde.’
Focus Features

Take out the cool retro tunes, neon everything and the formidable woman of action, and Atomic Blonde tends more bland than Bond.

Charlize Theron is the MI6 secret agent in the middle of double-crossing and triple-crossing in the new spy flick (**½ out of four; rated R; in theaters nationwide Friday) from director David Leitch. The John Wick co-director carries over his talent for filming great fight sequences and explosive set pieces, but the narrative and characters never quite reach the same heights. In some instances, the plot gets so convoluted that it’s hard to tell who’s a friend and who’s a foe.

The Blonde focal point is Lorraine Broughton, an exceedingly steely undercover operative in the last days of the Cold War circa 1989, having to explain her latest actions to a superior (Toby Jones) and a CIA honcho (John Goodman). A nasty black eye and scratched-up face hint at the mayhem she’s inflicted — and has had inflicted upon her.

That’s used as a framework to tell the entire escapade: With revolution in the air and the Wall about to fall, Lorraine is in Berlin to work with embedded agent David Percival (James McAvoy) to investigate the murder of a colleague, plus track down a man code-named Spyglass (Eddie Marsan), who has a list of agents that needs to stay out of Soviet hands.

Complicating matters is the existence of the double agent Satchel, who could be anybody, and the appearance of Delphine Lasalle (Sofia Boutella), a French spy who becomes Lorraine’s love interest of sorts, though — like pretty much every character — her true motives are a mystery for much of the movie.

Set to the sounds of Depeche Mode, Duran Duran and Nena, Blonde is a new wave-y pretzel of twists on top of twists. It gets a satisfying conclusion, though by then you’re wondering if you really knew anything about any of the various players.


Theron was more successful in turning on the fiery intensity as Mad Max: Fury Road’s Furiosa. However, Lorraine maintains a certain unbending cool throughout, from stylishly emerging from an ice bath — the cold metaphors never stop in this thing — to pummeling dudes with kitchen accessories.

The action scenes are brutal and excellent. One is done in single-take style where Lorraine kicks goons down stairs and gets thrown into walls herself, and though it wears out its welcome by going on too long, there is a pleasant sense of reality in the chaos. At one point, she can hardly stand and her opponent is wobbly as well, and they just continue their life-or-death duel as exhaustion sets in. 

Following up his strong turn in Split earlier this year, McAvoy is pleasantly zany as Parcival, though there’s not nearly enough of co-star Boutella. But in supporting roles, Jones, Goodman and James Faulkner (as MI6 head “C”) are all frustratingly bureaucratic guys who make solid sparring partners for Lorraine.

From Jennifer Garner in Alias to Keri Russell in The Americans, there’s plenty of precedent for female spy leads, and Theron has the moves and the manner to pull off a James Bond or Jason Bourne. But with its underwhelming storytelling, Atomic Blonde isn’t the ideal franchise starter she deserves.


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