Adapted from Antony Johnston and Sam Hart's graphic novel "The Coldest City" and directed by David Leitch -- one half of the duo behind the first "John Wick" movie -- the stylish "Atomic Blonde" has much in common with its protagonist: it's brutal and glamorous, though somewhat hollow at its core. But "Atomic Blonde" is at its best when focused on delivering ass-kicking fist fights and explosive shootouts.
At the tail end of the Cold War, undercover MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) is sent to Berlin to recover a master spy list containing the identities of a number of her country's double agents. She'll be teaming on the dangerous operation with David Percival (James McAvoy), a fellow British agent -- but one whose time on the other side of the Iron Curtain has made him unpredictable. Along the way, Lorraine also encounters a seductive French operative (Sofia Boutella getting to demonstrate infinitely more life than she was allowed in "The Mummy"), who may or may not have her best interests at heart. This is a spy flick, so naturally the mission ends up having more than its share of red herrings, twists, and double-crosses.
The plot around her is standard issue spy boilerplate, but Theron makes for a sleek and steely Jane Bond (by way of the Terminator). Leitch knows exactly how best to utilize his gifted star: close-ups of her face (photographed by cinematographer Jonathan Sela) are the film's own form of special effects, but he realizes when to step back and let us watch her do her thing.
Due to its director, "Atomic Blonde" is likely to earn comparisons to the two "John Wick" films, but this feels like an entirely different beast. Less wall-to-wall action than either of those movies, it's also a significantly colder film. Without an instant emotional hook like Wick avenging the death of his beloved dog, its somewhat self-consciously styled attitude and endless 1980's needledrops can grow a little wearying. It doesn't help that the narrative's momentum keeps getting undercut by Leitch's decision to cut back to a framing story in which Lorraine is questioned about her version of events by superiors at MI6 and the CIA (played by the always great John Goodman and Toby Jones).
Still, as a veteran stunt coordinator, Leitch knows his way around staging exciting screen combat, and the film boasts some spectacular set pieces. There's one extended sequence at the film's center that's an all-timer. Without exaggerating, it's likely to be talked about as one of the great action scenes of recent years -- and one I can't imagine being topped anytime soon.
Along with his "John Wick" co-director, Chad Stahelski, David Leitch has been helping to reinvigorate the action genre over the past couple years. Thanks to that thrilling and wildly imaginative work, Leitch is next set to put his unique stamp on "Deadpool 2," and I couldn't be more excited to see what he does with it. He's someone I'm more than happy to see Hollywood hand over the keys to the action movie kingdom.