There’s a futile fatalism floating around Atomic Blonde, set in 1989 during the days leading up to the fall of the Berlin Wall. The East-versus-West spy game still carries life-or-death stakes, but it also feels propelled by a dutiful inertia, predestined to play out like the gunslingers in Once Upon a Time in the West squaring off for a final climactic duel before getting freight-trained by the march of capitalism.
This contrast figures prominently in Antony Johnston’s 2012 source graphic novel, The Coldest City. Adapted for the screen by David Leitch (codirector of John Wick) and starring Charlize Theron, it recedes to the pop cultural backdrop for a twisty thriller that’s more dime-store John le Carré than Joan Wick or Jane Bond.
After Britain’s No. 2 spy turns up dead with an NOC list on the loose, MI6 sends super-spy Lorraine Broughton (Theron) to Berlin to recover the roster and uproot a Soviet espionage ring. There, she links up with local British station chief David Percival (James McAvoy), a live wire who has “gone native” after spending time embedded in the swelling underground anarchy of East Berlin.
The film’s framing device is a battered Broughton’s post-mission debriefing, conducted by an MI6 handler (Toby Jones) and a CIA spook (John Goodman). Flashbacks fill in the foreground, replete with double agents, a pulsating eighties Euro-pop soundtrack, and a stark palette—metallic by day, neon at night. Its slick sheen borders on antiseptic, backed by a plot that’s difficult, if not ultimately pointless, to follow.
Leitch’s camera lingers over his statuesque star, who emotes a world-weary, Stoli-swilling marriage of beauty and brawn. Theron shines when Atomic Blonde explodes into its sex-and-violence spasms. Unlike James Bond, Broughton’s sexual forays aren’t strictly heterosexual, nor are they immune from emotional entanglement; to wit, her dalliance with a French operative played by the rapidly rising Sofia Boutella. But everyone is really here for the fighting, which is filmed with a choreographed clarity makes it easier to follow the fisticuffs than the storyline. Indeed, a scene involving a defector extraction through and beyond a tenement is the best action sequence this side of The Raid.
Beyond intermittent flourishes of ferocity, Atomic Blonde’s icy veneer penetrates its heart; the film often seems to coast on its own glib, quirky coolness. The panache never quite meshes with the narrative peril, so even the most bruised and bloody moments feel like Kabuki theater. It's a feast for the senses, but it puts the cold back in Cold War.