I went to see Atomic Blonde twice — in part because, halfway through the first viewing, I realized I wasn’t paying attention to the plot. Not just that: I didn’t really care about the plot. The movie is set in Berlin in November 1989 against the fall of the Berlin Wall. But it’s not telling that story. That story hovers in the background, in a shot of Kurt Loder’s was-he-ever-that-young face on MTV news, in the kids drinking outside doorways, dogs barking at checkpoints. That story of something bigger at stake is present, but not central. You’d have to look past Charlize Theron to see it.
You might not want to.
As MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton, Theron sports a beautiful wardrobe (the ’80s were rarely this elegant) and an even more impressive skill set. She’s sent to Berlin to recover a list and a body. The list includes the identity of a double agent known as Satchel. The body means more to her than her superiors understand.
When she arrives in Berlin, everything immediately goes haywire. Her contact, David Percival (James McAvoy, building his morally-dubious-charming-rogues catalog), has gone feral, as their bosses say. A French woman is following her. And the Russians already know who she is.
These pieces in play, director David Leitch guides Theron through an increasingly violent series of encounters, every one of which does the vital thing action often forgets to do: expanding character. Lorraine is wily, observant, inventive, and fighting for more than she lets on. Leitch, a longtime stunt performer and coordinator, knows what his lead is capable of and how to weave in the work of her stunt double so that you might easily believe Theron took every punch.
One of the trailers for Atomic Blonde was set to Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus,” with every connection of fist and face, knee and ribs, timed to that song’s propulsive rhythm. It was the perfect way to sell the movie’s sometimes cheeky sense of style, but the film’s stellar soundtrack drops wisely back when the focus is on fighting, surviving, getting out. In a long hallway scene, you hear only grunts, screams, breaking glass. Fighters bounce off walls, stagger when trying to rise; hits seem to land with such force that it’s hard to imagine the level of choreographic skill that went into creating the illusion.
Cinematic violence isn’t for everyone, but I’ve always watched fight scenes like a dance: frustrating when you can’t see clearly, when directors cut away or get in too close, but breathtaking when done properly, with skill and finesse. Lorraine fights for her life and her country. She’d walk away if she could, but she can’t. Not yet. And so she fights. She plots, she plans, she makes allies and enemies, but mostly she fights. Effectively, fiercely, and without anyone ever telling her she can’t.
The plot is fine, with a couple of dubious choices best left unspoiled. But I’m not here for the plot. Are you? I’m here for a 41-year-old woman dominating the best action scenes in years. I’m here for a glorious action movie that doesn’t threaten its female star with sexual violence. I’m here for Charlize Theron as a real-life Amazon. I’m here for more of this, please.