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Movie Review: ‘Atomic Blonde’ Is a Pretty Mess of Style and Action

Atomic Blonde begins with setting the stage of 1989 Berlin during the fall of the Berlin Wall, only to spray-paint an X through this passage to proclaim that this isn’t that story. It is and it isn’t, however, in a picture that never really settles into its chaotic and neon groove of an alternative and bombastic spy film. Sometimes it’s a fast-paced action picture of wicked stunts, other times a stylish thriller of colorful shots, but most often spinning its wheels as a convoluted chase for secret information. The spray paint used to X out the introductory text should have been used to edit the script down into something that finds its voice rather than inconsistently scream in off notes to the greatest hits of the 80s.

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Charlize Theron takes the reins.

Charlize Theron is at least a delight to watch as Lorraine Broughton, a secret agent so intense she dispatches enemy agents with shoes and takes baths in tubs of ice. She is called in to retrieve a list of names that includes double agents which could turn the course of the Cold War. Because a traditional list is boring, the names are concealed within the parts of a wristwatch, making it an easier MacGuffin to swipe. The rest of the plot isn’t worth explaining or deciphering as it becomes fast and muddy with alliances, betrayals, doubles agents, triple agents and the destruction of the Berlin Wall behind all of it.

What matters is that Theron gets to kick as much Berlin butt as she can, arriving in Germany for only a few minutes before she takes out her transport. Later she will battle a whole room of agents on the top floor of an apartment, whipping a cord around one of their necks to be used for her escape out the window. The crowning centerpiece is by far the unbroken-shot sequence of Theron fighting her way up the stairs of an apartment, leading into a room, back down the stairs, into a car and into a river. This sequence in particular is rather stellar for how Theron appears tired and battered, practically flinging her bruised body at her enemies after so many blows.

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Bam! The atomic blonde jumps into the action.

On her mission, Lorraine is assigned to work with David Percival, played by an eccentric and smart James McAvoy going bald for Berlin. Despite not being as fearsome as Theron, McAvoy does his best to keep up with the secrets of the ever-changing story and becomes just as much of a wildcard to tag along. A dash of spice comes from Sofia Boutella as a French agent that is easily bested by Theron at assassinations in clubs and orgasms in the sheets. John Goodman and Toby Jones play secret agents that spend most of the movie recounting Lorraine’s actions, but do an ample job at questioning her story, from sneering at her smugness to feeling uncomfortable with her divulging of devouring Boutella.

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I’ve seen quite a few films this year that wax hard on the nostalgia of 1980s music, but Atomic Blonde makes some of the worst choices in its soundtrack, choosing tracks more fitting of the era than the moment. For taking place in Germany, the use of “99 Luftballons” should be special, if it just has to be used. Placing it within an interrogation scene where an agent beats a punk to death with a skateboard doesn’t feel fitting, never nailing whatever juxtaposition may have been implied. And the rest of the film proceeds to slap in more 80s classics as though someone had left the radio on in the background.

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