Want a Furiosa-Based Mad Max Sequel? Atomic Blonde Is the Next Best Thing
In Mad Max: Fury Road, Charlize Theron created an instant icon with Furiosa’s shaved head, smear of black paint, and ferocious screams. Now Theron has done it again—this time, with a platinum-blond crop, a high popped collar, and miles of lethal, stiletto-clad legs. In Atomic Blonde, her Cold War-era spy character, Lorraine Broughton, brutally dispatches Russian and German agents without ever losing an inch of style. She’s the captivating eye of a rather messy plot storm, and you won’t be able to keep your eyes off her for a second. The film had a triumphant, ecstatic debut at SXSW on Sunday night, but won’t debut in the U.S. until July 28. All other summer blockbusters should just surrender now.
Atomic Blonde—an adaptation of the 2012 graphic novel The Coldest City—sees Theron’s MI-6 agent Broughton sent to Berlin in 1989, on the eve of the collapse of the Berlin Wall. The story of her trip there unspools in flashback as a badly beat-up Broughton is questioned several days later by agents from both MI-6 (Toby Jones) and the C.I.A. (John Goodman). Her original mission puts the film in familiar spy territory: there’s a list with the names of British and American spies on it that’s in danger of falling into the wrong hands. There’s also a dangerous double agent on the loose. Broughton is instructed to work with Berlin MI-6 station chief David Percival (James McAvoy), who has adapted maybe a bit too well to the black-market-driven streets of the crumbling city. Meanwhile, she’s also being pursued by a mysterious French spy (Sofia Boutella) and a never-ending stream of German and Russian agents intent on taking her down.
The many, many backstabbing twists and turns of Atomic Blonde’s plot are almost irrelevant to audience enjoyment. The story merely serves as a way to bring Broughton and Percival into one show-stopping fight after another. (An approach that might seem familiar to fans of John Wick 2.) The story’s erratic ups and downs would be more of a negative if the dazzling action scenes didn’t make every leap in logic feel worth it.
The film is directed by former stunt man David Leitch, who co-directed John Wick and jumped off the Keanu Reeves sequel to work on Atomic Blonde. But the relationship between the Wick and Atomic teams is a friendly one: Reeves and Theron trained and sparred together, and it shows. Atomic Blonde one-ups John Wick and every other hand-to-hand combat film in recent memory, thanks to the extremely striking figure Theron cuts as she kicks and punches her way through the dirty streets and abandoned high rises of Berlin to an irresistibly gritty new-wave soundtrack. The film is shot by John Wick cinematographer Jonathan Sela, who uses the neon aesthetic of the 80s to drench Theron, her enemies, and her lovers in eerie red and blue lighting. So many shots are composed to look like a comic-book panel that’s 75 percent leg.
And if those legs were only employed for seductive purposes, the camera might seem to be leering. But on Theron, they’re a deadly weapon. In one particularly dazzling long take—which takes Broughton down a long flight of stairs, into the street, and through a violent car chase—Theron is clearly doing at least some of her own stunts, both dishing out and taking the kind of beatings you don’t often see female spies endure.
Thanks to a stunning opening sequence where Theron exposes brutal cuts and bruises on every inch of her body, audiences may cringe at the nasty hits she takes. Unlike some fictional female spies who glide through their dangerous missions without mussing their hair, Broughton is a brawler. And Theron—who is rapidly becoming our finest action star—threw herself into the part so thoroughly that she apparently cracked some teeth while training to flatten all of Berlin.