Charlize Theron plays Lorraine Broughton, a bad ass MI-6 agent who enjoys ice-baths almost as much as she does her liquor. The setting is 1989 Berlin, before the tearing down of the Wall. The Cold War still rages.  After an undercover agent winds up dead, Lorraine is dispatched to Berlin to take down whoever is responsible. She’s tasked with working with David Percival (James McAvoy), a slippery section chief enamored with the brutality of Berlin.

The two form an uneasy alliance in order to track down the perpetrators and recover a list of compromised MI6 and CIA agents. To further complicate matters is Delphine Lasalle (Sofia Boutella), an undercover French agent who becomes romantically involved with Lorraine. And of course, like any Cold War thriller worth its salt, there’s plenty of Russian spies to throw a monkey wrench into everything. Lorraine kicks all their asses.

Lorraine kicks all their asses.

Atomic Blonde marks director David Leitch’s first solo venture since co-directing the original John Wick with Chad Stahelski. Like John Wick, Atomic Blonde stars a cold and calculating bad ass who doesn’t let anything get in their way when it comes to killing mooks. However, unlike John Wick, Atomic Blonde features an overly complicated plot composed of back stabbings, triple agents, and the usual spy shenanigans. The first half of the film focuses on Lorraine tracking down a bunch of leads and gathering intel. I found it immensely difficult to track what exactly was going on. So much so that the plot revelations of the second half lack the emotional punch that they should have.

The bungled plot is a shame, but Leitch makes up for it with one of the most stylish and engaging action films of the year. Filled with an abundance of neon lights and inventive action sequences, Leitch demonstrates his familiarity with the genre. While the first half of the film meanders a bit from one convoluted plot development to the next, the second half fires on all cylinders, beginning with a scene been dubbed “The Stairwell Scene.”

The Stairwell Scene marks a dramatic shift for the film. It’s where it switches gears from confusing espionage thriller to a balls-to-the-wall action film, playing to the strengths of Leitch as a director. This lengthy sequence features Lorraine facing off against a bunch of dudes in brutal hand-to-hand combat throughout a stairwell. And it’s captured with one glorious tracking shot. It allows Leitch to flex his directing muscles and Theron her action chops. From this point on, the film becomes vastly more interesting, as the aforementioned plot revelations happen and Lorraine begins kicking all sorts of ass.

Atomic Blonde wouldn’t be near as engaging as it is if it wasn’t for authoritative performance by Theron. She embodies the role of a hard as nails MI-6 with a penchant for alcohol. While Lorraine gets the shit beat out of her more than once, it never feels like she’s lost control of the situation. Even when she isn’t headshotting fools or stabbing them with keys, Theron radiates with power. She brings such a physicality to the role that is hard to match. Homegirl gets naked a lot in this movie, but not once does it feel sexualized. For example, after particularly grueling fights, Lorraine tends to subject herself to ice baths. Instead of pandering to the male gaze, the camera lingers on her muscular back, in very similar fashion to shower scenes from John Wick.

McAvoy is also so damn good in this.  I’ve always loved McAvoy for his tendency to give 1000% to every role given to him, and Atomic Blonde is no different. The dude is gleefully unhinged and scummy here. Shitty James McAvoy is the best version of James McAvoy, and that’s certainly on display here. When taken along with Split, it’s been a hell of a year for the dude.

The rest of the cast does a solid job as well. John Goodman and Toby Jones are enjoyable as Lorraine’s superiors debriefing her about ther mission in an unneeded framing device. Sofia Boutella is great as well, if woefully underutilized. Her chemistry with Theron is fantastic. I actually found their relationship to be sweet and would have loved to see more of them together.

While brought down by an underwhelming narrative, Atomic Blonde is elevated by a wonderful performance by Theron and rock solid directing by Leitch. While it’s not on the same level as Leitch’s previous John Wick, it features enough captivating action sequences and 80s music needle drops for Theron to kick ass to. Now I don’t know about you, but with Mad Max: Fury Road and Atomic Blonde, I could watch Charlize Theron kick ass all day.

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