Leggy Lorraine Broughton, the nearly superhuman Cold War spy at the center of stylish “Atomic Blonde,” is all platinum hair, high fashion and fierce physicality.
The performance is barely skin deep. Good thing the skin belongs to Charlize Theron.
It’s hard to recall another recent movie in which the camera so obsessively and totally dwells on its leading lady. Theron, one of the film’s producers, always has been an attractive screen presence (she won an Oscar for making herself ugly to play a serial killer in 2003’s “Monster”), but here she radiates an icy beauty that is overwhelming. Even bruised, battered and bloody she is gorgeous.
That watchability is vital, for big chunks of “Atomic Blonde” — based on the graphic novel “The Coldest City” — are narratively incomprehensible.
The story begins in 1989 London, where Lorraine, looking as if she has just gone 15 rounds with Muhammad Ali, is summoned to MI6 headquarters for a debriefing. One of her bosses (Toby Jones) and an American CIA bigwig (John Goodman) want details on her recent mission to Berlin. The bulk of the film unfolds in flashback.
In this retelling Lorraine is dispatched to Germany to retrieve “the list,” a directory of Western agents in the possession of an East German security official who wants to defect (Eddie Marsan). We never learn how the list was compiled or by whom, only that both sides are desperate to lay their hands on it.
Leading the search is the Brits’ cynical Berlin station chief, Percival (James McAvoy), who has “gone native,” running a black market operation, moving back and forth over and under the Berlin Wall. In this setting, communism is on its last legs, with frustrated East Berliners holding massive protests.
There’s a French spy (Sofia Boutella of “The Mummy”) with whom Lorraine has an energetic roll in the hay (our heroine’s sexuality is quite fluid), and an assortment of thuggish Eastern Bloc assassins and torturers.
It’s all rather confusing. Kurt Johnstad’s screenplay is a jumble of tongue-twisting foreign names and clunky exposition interrupted by periodic outbursts of violence.
In his directorial debut David Leitch, a stuntman who staged some of the terrific fight scenes in “John Wick,” can’t make sense of all the running around.
But he can inject some sly humor, including a running gag about all the trenchcoats, evening gowns and form-fitting casual wear Lorraine can stuff into two small carry-on bags.
It’s only deep into the film’s second hour when Leitch, abetted by Jonathan Sela’s cinematography, truly finds his cinematic voice with an extended fight/chase sequence through the streets and shabby buildings of East Berlin, with Theron performing most of her own stunts.
Much of this hand-to-hand mayhem pitting Lorraine against a seemingly endless army of Commie thugs is shot in long uninterrupted takes, and it is breathtaking for its carefully choreographed brutality. By the time it’s over our big blonde has barely the strength to plunge a corkscrew into a bad guy’s neck.
There’s also a marvelous moment when East German demonstrators use their umbrellas to conceal Lorraine from snipers. It’s a sly nod to a similar scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Foreign Correspondent.”
Holding it all together is Theron’s performance. It’s not as if we like Lorraine — she doesn’t let us get close enough for that. Her motives and emotions are hard to pin down, and she’s so good at deceiving other spies that she deceives her audience as well.
But her sheer physicality dominates the enterprise. Whether soaking away her pain in an ice cube-filled bath or savagely kicking Commie butt, this “Atomic Blonde” grabs our attention and won’t let go.
Read more of Robert W. Butler’s reviews at butlerscinemascene.com.
Rated R for sequences of strong violence, language throughout and some sexuality/nudity.