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'Atomic Blonde' isn't only about Charlize Theron going Keanu

One of the makers of "John Wick" has made a film that's more John Le Carré than "John Wick."
Atomic Blonde
That's Charlize Theron, buried under hair, dispatching one of about 1000 minions in "Atomic Blonde." Credit: Focus Features

‘Atomic Blonde’
Director:
David Leitch
Stars: Charlize Theron, James McAvoy
Rating: R
3 (out of 5) Globes

At the time it was a hell of a break-up: The two directors of “John Wick” split ways after making one of leanest, meanest action movies in recent memory. But at least something worked out in the end. What directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch did was like a hydra cutting off its own head. From the wound sprouted two lean, mean, old school action movies — and they featured the former lovebirds of “The Devil’s Advocate” and “Sweet November.” Stahelski took the “John Wick” sequel, while Leitch lighted out with “Atomic Blonde,” in which Charlize Theron gets to go Keanu on a bunch of doomed randos.

But “Atomic Blonde” is more John Le Carré than "Jane Wick," and less James Bond and more one of the grounded Bond knock-offs. (Think the Harry Palmer films featuring a bespectacled Michael Caine.) It unleashes Theron’s MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton upon Berlin right before the Wall comes down in 1989. The English government has sent her there to infiltrate a Russian spy ring that’s been picking off fellow agents, and to get her hands on the MacGuffin: a sought-after list that might not be terribly handy once Communism falls.

The ads promise relentless ass-whooping, with our Amazonian bruiser felling untold minions with rope, with heels, with nightsticks nicked from police, with hot plates. Alas, it’s the latest case of slightly misleading advertising (see also: “It Comes at Night,” though not that aggressive). Leitch came to directing from stunt coordinating, but he spaces out his heroic smackdowns conservatively. Most of the time it’s lost in a dense fog of intrigue, shifting allegiances and Cold War misery porn. Our mysterious and mostly silent lead badass shuffles between both sides of the Wall, all while everyone whispers that most feared and missed acronym of a bygone movie era: the KGB.

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Not that you need follow too closely. When he’s not delivering the goods — including an epic long take battle that starts on a staircase and ends by out-“Children of Men”-ing “Children of Men” — Leitch is drowning the film in ’80s-fetish style. The Dolby Surround blasts New Order and Depeche Mode and Bowie as Theron slinks stonefaced through dark alleys and neon nightclubs and dilapidated GDR buildings, pausing only to ponder over cigarettes or drop ice cubes in a glass of Stoli.

Frankly, “Atomic Blonde” isn’t always worth following. It’s like a Cold War thriller hatched by someone who vaguely remembers seeing some movies about it once decades ago, maybe. In other words, it gets sloppy. Lorraine has been told not to trust anyone, not even her man in Berlin (a shifty and giddily amoral James McAvoy), but she she thinks nothing of making the beast with two backs with her inexperienced French contact (Sofia Boutella). One supporting character is so obviously bent any seasoned moviegoer would assume the twist is that s/he’s a red herring — except there is no twist. (Maybe that’s the twist?) Every surprise and about-face, even its world-weary cynicism, is arbitrary, half-baked, all surface.

But what a seductive/bludgeoning surface. As an action director, Leitch is every bit Stahelski’s equal. Sometimes his camera stands back and simply lets us drink in every blow; other times it’s a fellow dancer, moving with Theron’s every high-kick or coldcock. Refreshingly, both directors are weirdos. Stahelski’s “John Wick: Chapter 2” featured an epic climax in a mirror-heavy art exhibit; Leitch’s “Atomic Blonde” throws in a fight in a movie theater, Theron and villain pounding on each other in silhouette in front of Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Stalker.” Come for the part where Charlize battles a guy with a corkscrew; stay for the leftfield cameo from Fassbinder alum Barbara Sukowa. Just don’t pay attention to the story.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

 
 
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