This is a movie that stages a fight behind a movie screen projecting Stalker, perhaps so the filmmakers can boast that they got people who came to see Charlize Theron beat up people to learn about Andrei Tarkovsky on Google. It's a film that casts Barbara Sukowa in a bit part as if it were a homage to New German Cinema. It is, as I mentioned in passing, a film in which Charlize Theron beats people up, but that doesn't mean it can't be pretentious in its own fashion.
As a movie star, Theron was born in violence. In 2 Days in the Valley she was not just the hot new hottie but the one who got attention for bare-knuckle brawling with Terri Hatcher. She's always been something of an Amazon, and that probably made it easier for her to earn acclaim and awards playing a Ms. Hyde version of the type, an uglyfied man-hating murderer in Monster. It has long seemed like her destiny to be an action star, especially as she advances into her forties past leading-lady territory. She made a move in that direction right after Monster, but Aeon Flux set back her cause for a while. More recently she's become an A-level genre fixture, finally established as an action goddess by Mad Max: Fury Road. I don't know what the hell she was doing in the last Fast and Furious movie, but for her latest star vehicle she's teamed with some of the people who miraculously transformed Keanu Reeves into a midlife badass in the John Wick films. The promise of Atomic Blonde is that Charlize Theron will not only beat people up, but will do so with style and devastating force and little winks to the movie nerds in the audience.
Stuntman turned director David Leitch has filmed a screenplay adapted from one of those obscure graphic novels that Hollywood pays people to read -- don't envy them until you read a few hundred -- by screenwriter Kurt Johnstad, who most recently wrote the second 300 movie -- the really bad one. I don't know whether he or the original writer deserves the "credit" for Atomic Blonde's utterly generic spy story, which depends on that old standby, the List. In 1989, as the Berlin Wall crumbles, the intelligence agencies of several nations are fighting over one of those lists, the existence of which automatically endangers vast numbers of operatives and assets. MI6's contender in this deadly sweepstakes is Lorraine Broughton (Theron), whose sole useful attribute, from what we see, is her versatility in hand-to-hand combat. She replaces a British agent who was killed, presumably by a traitor known as Satchel. She is to be assisted by David Percival (James McAvoy) an agent working on the other side of the Wall as a black marketeer. Percival has a back-up for the list: the German agent who created the list and has memorized all of it. If all else fails, this man is to be smuggled out of East Berlin. Broughton and Percival have a prickly relationship that happily doesn't consummate in romance, as might have been taken for granted a few years ago. Instead, our heroine has her very own Bond Girl in the form of a French agent (Sofia "The Mummy" Boutella). None of this can be told straightforwardly, of course, because this is the 21st century. Instead, the details are related after the fact during a framing-device debriefing that preempts any suspense about Broughton in Berlin. MI6 has been taken over by Hydra, it seems, since Broughton must answer for her actions to Arnim Zola and his U.S. counterpart (John Goodman). Any narrative (or erotic) momentum the film works up is broken up by its constant return to the inert framing device -- but let's face it. The narrative isn't really meant to have momentum of its own; it only has to transport us from one action setpiece to another, and while the story of the film is pretty tedious, and eventually predictable, those setpieces mostly live up to the advance hype. I'm not going to bother describing them, apart from citing one that plays out during a lengthy Rope-style "single take" as the piece de resistance. It will do to recommend Atomic Blonde as an action film that puts Theron over as an opportunistic, resilient brawler in a relatively realistic style. If Wonder Woman is too fantastic for your tastes, Atomic Blonde should end up your female action movie of the year, though it may try your patience at times when it tries to tell a story instead of doing what it's really good at.