It was famously said of Ginger Rogers that she did everything Fred Astaire did, only backwards and in high heels. In Atomic Blonde, MI6 operative Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) does everything Jason Bourne does, and though she’s not doing it backwards, she is in high heels, and it’s more than a little impressive. Especially when one of those heels becomes a weapon she uses to dispose of a bad guy.

Based on the 2012 graphic novel The Coldest City by Antony Johnston and Sam Hart, Atomic Blonde follows Broughton through the streets of Berlin in November 1989, during the Cold War’s collapse and the fall of the Berlin Wall.

After an opening prologue, Broughton finds herself in an interrogation room, answering to her superiors (Toby Jones and John Goodman) about a spy mission gone wrong. She had been sent to retrieve “The List”, a microfilm containing the names and aliases of every field agent operating behind the Iron Curtain. Through flashbacks, we get to the heart of the movie, as Broughton lands in Berlin, meets up with her handler David Percival (James McAvoy), and starts the hunt. And then we see the entirety of the bloody disaster-of-a-mission unfold.

Though Broughton already has enough on her plate, she’s also forced to contend with the specter of an unidentified double agent named Satchel, who’s mucking things up and leaving Broughton with no idea who she can and can’t trust.

Atomic Blonde is a non-stop barrage of gunfights, car chases, and scenes involving Theron pummeling baddies within an inch of their life (and sometimes further). It’s John Wick meets James Bond, all set to a retro-tastic soundtrack featuring Depeche Mode, New Order, and The Clash.

First-time director David Leitch, who cut his teeth as stunt coordinator on a myriad of films, including Mr. and Mrs. Smith, The Bourne Ultimatum, and Tron: Legacy, brings all the gusto and tight choreography required to make Atomic Blonde memorable not only as a female-driven action flick but as an action flick in general. Working from a serviceable script by Kurt Johnstad (300: Rise of an Empire), Leitch perfectly captures the feel of late 80s Berlin and skillfully interweaves the spy story with the goings-on in the political world right outside the window.

McAvoy follows up his brilliant work in last year’s Split with more spot-on work here, adding another seemingly effortless, though entirely riveting, performance. But this is Theron’s show, and she’s more than up for the task, establishing herself (if Mad Max: Fury Road hadn’t already) as a worthy candidate for inclusion in the generally all-boys club of ass-kicking action stars.

Atomic Blonde’s story may keep you guessing right up until the end, but the one thing that’s never in doubt is Broughton’s ability to kill people with a well-placed punch and Theron’s ability to sell it. Watch out, Mr. Bourne.


4/5 stars