As relations between the United States and Russia remain at an especially weird level of passive aggression, films set against the backdrop of the Cold War are, all of a sudden, oh-so topical again.
With a title winking at the world-ending dimension of that particular contretemps, Atomic Blonde (an adaptation of 2012 graphic novel The Coldest City) arrives in theatres sporting an evocative period setting and delirious, ultra-stylish action. The solo directorial debut of John Wick's David Leitch, this is an ambitious, though largely incomprehensible, slice of adrenaline-laced cinema that survives on the talents of its star, Charlize Theron.
She plays British agent Lorraine Broughton, a gimlet-eyed intelligence operative dispatched to Berlin, as the Soviet state was breathing its last, following the murder of a colleague by the KGB and the loss of a valuable spy list. Allied with the MI6 station chief, David Percival (James McAvoy), she must recover the data and execute those behind the slaying of her compatriot. Relayed via flashback as she briefs her superiors (Toby Jones and John Goodman) on the details of the mission, Broughton – battered, bruised, devouring cigarettes – makes for a compelling narrator.
As with John Wick, Leitch (a former stuntman) unfurls a cacophony of brutal, yet beautiful, set pieces. From a technical standpoint, it is often an exhilarating vision. The signature relentlessness of the latter comes to the fore in a series of sequences that rely more on physicality than gun porn. Theron, channelling the glory of Mad Max: Fury Road, rather than the post-Oscar depths of Aeon Flux, seems the perfect totem for this mayhem. Tall and lithe, hidden beneath a mop of platinum hair and oozing an air of genuine menace, she scraps and brawls her way through a plot which is as light on exposition as it is heavy on intrigue.
Whether it's decimating German cops or culling goons in a beautifully staged hotel-based firefight, Broughton's lethal capabilities are stunning. One late scene involving Eddie Marsan's Stasi defector and a gang of Russian heavies is absolutely astonishing, captured in a single shot and taking in an elevator, a staircase, a cluttered apartment and, finally, a car chase.
Leitch holds nothing in reserve, flinging Theron around with wild abandon, pitting her against male belligerents granting no quarter. Indeed, it isn't long before one pities these men, assailed, as they are, by their opponent's penchant for fighting like a caged animal and turning, Jason Bourne-like, ordinary household items into deadly tools.
Its visual attributes are just as impressive. John Wick cinematographer Jonathan Sela brings the same palette to bear, all rich hues and neon lighting. Berlin serves as a wondrous backdrop, its gaudy post-modern suites, elegant cafés and subversive underground raves each dominated by that iconic wall, pockmarked, graffitied and ready to fall. A soundtrack replete with synth-heavy 80s pop gilds the experience.
From a narrative standpoint, however, the movie falls some way short of matching its visceral thrills. Leitch and screenwriter Kurt Johnstad are aiming to deliver a smart Euro thriller and while the picture does not lack intellect, its story is something of a mess, gratuitously deceptive and reliant on wintry chicanery, as well as the standard tropes of the genre: trust no one; watch your back; always look cool. That Broughton herself may be an unreliable messenger should feel more precarious than it actually does and even a final, inevitable twist fails to provide clarity.
Fortunately, the strength of the spectacle and Theron's kinetic performance are sufficient to overcome these distractions. Whatever its failings, Atomic Blonde packs a tremendous punch, its brawn, not brains, coming out on top.