All those idiots who perpetually bleat that there could never be a female James Bond might care to check this out. If there were any lingering doubts that Charlize Theron can convince as an ass-kicker after Mad Max: Fury Road, then this should dispel those notions completely. Here she plays MI6 agent, Louise Broughton, a kind of Jane Bond figure who apparently subsists on a diet of neat vodka-on-the-rocks and cigarettes, whilst rocking a series of 80s fashions and performing extreme chop socky moves to the strains of classic rock songs. (This is the second film this year to use Flock of Seagulls’ I Ran to excellent effect. Just sayin’).
It’s November 1989 and the Berlin Wall is about to take a permanent dive. Broughton is sent over to Berlin to team up with fellow agent, David Percival (James McAvoy), a man who presents such a dodgy persona, it’s a wonder he can find his own reflection in a mirror. Somebody – Code Name ‘Satchel’ – has procured a list of British agents and their nefarious dealings during the Cold War, a list so incendiary that it mustn’t be allowed to fall into enemy hands. Broughton’s job is to find the list (and hopefully Satchel) and bring them both back to Blighty. But it isn’t an easy task when she can’t trust anybody…
What this basically boils down to is an excuse for a series of bruising action sequences, in which Broughton takes down what seems like a whole army of men, using any weapons at her disposal – a stiletto heel, a frying pan, a bunch of keys – she’s not fussy, she’ll employ anything that comes to hand. The highlight here is a long fight scene on a staircase. Shot in a continuous take, it sets the bar high for pain and punishment and there’s no doubt that director David Leitch, fresh off John Wick: Chapter Two, knows how to stage a convincing punch-up. I loved the fact that people don’t emerge from one of these skirmishes with a polite spot of blood at the side of their mouth, as we so often witness in this kind of film – no, we regularly see Broughton’s bruised and swollen face and limbs and we quite understand her habit of taking occasional ice baths.
Rather less successful, however, is the plot, which is so labyrinthine as to defy all understanding. Virtually every character we meet is double-crossing somebody else or working for somebody else or pretending to be somebody else. By the conclusion, I thought I had a handle on most of it but I wouldn’t want to testify to it in court – or indeed, in the kind of rigorous debriefing that is used as the framework for Atomic Blonde. There are excellent supporting roles from the likes of Toby Jones, Eddie Marsan and John Goodman, as various men in suits, but this is undeniably a showcase for Theron’s star power and she makes the most of it.
A simpler plot would certainly have made this a better film, overall, but action junkies will love the fights and I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t find them thrilling. If Leitch can marry those superior action chops to a simpler, more convincing storyline, who knows what might be achieved? Here, he manages to win on points rather than achieving a knockout blow. But it’s certainly worth the price of a ringside seat.