Very late in “Atomic Blonde,” there’s a protracted, bloody, single-take fight scene in which the title character, played by Charlize Theron, dispatches a midsize horde of Russian assassins in a spectacular ballet-cum-orgy of stylized action mayhem. Choreographed in, up, and through a Berlin apartment building, the 10-minute sequence was released months ago as an online teaser and it gave fanboys the vapors; it’s brutal and it’s brilliant and I submit that its most original aspect is that the participants still alive at the end are exhausted — battered and wheezing for breath on all fours. So rarely does violence actually hurt in mainstream movies that this choice seems nearly brave.
It’s not — it’s just this movie’s aesthetic, which is propulsive enough for an excellent two-hour summer roller-coaster ride. Directed by David Leitch, a former stunt coordinator and second unit man getting his shot at the big top, “Atomic Blonde” is based on a graphic novel series and set in Berlin 1989, just before the collapse of the Wall. It’s film noir meets Jason Bourne with a dash of John le Carré, and its chief claim to your attention is our reigning lady badass at its center.
After her serial killer in “Monster” (2003), Theron was acknowledged by audiences and Oscar as (much) more than the latest Hollywood babe-lette; after her Imperator Furiosa in “Mad Max: Fury Road,” a lot of us were willing to follow her anywhere. “Atomic Blonde” comes out in a year in which images of triumphant Wonder Women vie with beleaguered Handmaids, but it’s a statement of purpose more by default than design.
Theron’s Lorraine Broughton, an MI6 agent assigned to bring in an East German turncoat (Eddie Marsan) with a list of spies in his head, is as cool and capable as any iteration of James Bond, but there’s a further attractive factor. She’s fed up — disgusted with the lumbering machinations of the men in her line of business.
That includes her bosses back in London, played by wizened Toby Jones and aristocratic maypole James Faulkner; a blustery CIA kibitzer (John Goodman, in excellent fettle); a sleek KGB kingpin (Roland Moller) who rules East Berlin and who resembles the love child of Vladimirs Lenin and Putin; various low-level thugs, gunmen, and cretins; and David Percival (James McAvoy), a fellow British agent gone charmingly rogue during his time in Germany.
Is Percival the double agent known as Satchel? Does he want Lorraine dead for other, unspecified reasons? The movie doesn’t really care and neither should you. “Atomic Blonde” is predicated on backing the heroine into various corners while she’s wearing various heart-stopping outfits (thank you, costume designer Cindy Evans) and then letting her kick/punch/flip/shoot/knife/maul/corkscrew/hot-plate her way out, mostly to a soundtrack of impeccably chosen period Euro-hits. (“Blue Monday,” yes; “Der Kommissar,” of course; “99 Luftballoons” — what do you think?)
The result is hardly a classic, but it’s a damn fine action movie — it works. Leitch has little interest in mood and not much personality as a director, but he knows how to move the camera in ways that intuitively entertain the eye. He lets editing and music serve as twin pistons that keep “Atomic Blonde” purring charismatically from beginning to loop-de-loop end. The movie has verve, and you’re rarely bored even when you lose track of the sputtering plot. (It also features so much cigarette smoking, photographed with such fetishistic attention to detail, that one wonders if a representative from R.J. Reynolds was on-set at all times.)
The only other woman in sight — aside from a frosty coroner played by the great German actress Barbara Sukowa — is Delphine LaSalle (Sofia Boutella), a naive French spy who falls into bed with Lorraine in a scene that plays as an awkward midway point between a Bond-girl seduction scene and the French lesbian drama “Blue Is the Warmest Color.” Theron conveys her character’s congenial lust and protectiveness for the other woman, but the movie seems unsure whether to gawk or go along — whether to commit to the “subversiveness” of its governing idea or treat it as a hubba-hubba novelty for the boys.
That’s called hedging your bets. Yes, everything is political one way or the other, but, no, this movie really isn’t. It ain’t art, either, even if Lorraine does fight a few villains in silhouette against a Berlin movie screen playing Andrei Tarkosky’s “Stalker.” “Atomic Blonde” will simply have to suffice as craft that doesn’t let the audience take a breather from propulsive beginning to double-twist end. Maybe the sequel will actually get around to meaning something.
Directed by David Leitch. Written by Kurt Johnstad, based on a graphic novel series by Antony Johnston and Sam Hart. Starring Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, Sofia Boutella, Eddie Marsan, John Goodman. At Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs. 115 minutes. R (sequences of strong violence, language throughout, some sexuality/nudity).Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.