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— Raymond Massey as Abe Lincoln, Abe Lincoln in Illinois

MRQE Top Critic

The Great Train Robbery

(review...)

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“Everything you want is on the other side of fear.”
— Slogan in a night club in Atomic Blonde

Atomic Blonde is a violent, action-packed hoot almost on par with John Wick’s level of mayhem.

Sister of No Mercy

Walking along the Wall in 1989 Berlin
Walking along the Wall in 1989 Berlin

Of all things, the movie opens with President Ronald Reagan’s famous “tear down this wall” speech. That was in June 1987, but the action quickly — and with a dash of humor — skips over to November 1989, when the wall’s demise is imminent.

Atomic Blonde (based on the graphic novel series The Coldest City) fully takes advantage of its setting and era. The visuals are packed with 1980s details and the soundtrack is stuffed with ’80s pop songs. Tunes by David Bowie, Depeche Mode, George Michael and many others help recreate the atmosphere and temperature of a world excited by the possibilities of a reunited Germany and communism on the verge of collapse.

Against that backdrop is a spy thriller involving a list that promises to expose a double agent. Who has the list? Is it in the hands of MI6? The KBG? The GDR? The CIA?

Finding that list and exposing the double agent falls upon one Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron, Monster). She’s a beautiful blonde. But she can pack a punch — and many otherwise innocent inanimate objects can be put into her service while knocking out (for good) the bad guys.

Jane Wick

Comparisons to John Wick’s flicks come fast and furious. While John is a modern-era character, he operates in a world very similar to Lorraine’s.

For John, there’s the Intercontinental Hotel, a sanctuary for spies where a code of conduct is strictly enforced. For Lorraine, it’s a quiet luxury watch shop in Berlin. Lorraine also eschews the snazzy gadgetry of James Bond. It’s 1989 and people drive Volvos and Trabants; bulky audio recorders and their wires are taped to the body and covered as inconspicuously as possible.

In John’s case, he loses his wife and dog to a clique of slimy Russians. Lorraine loses her lover to counter-spy activity.

And, just as Keanu Reeves owns the role of John Wick, Charlize Theron owns her role and in doing so fills the female action hero void vacated by Angelina Jolie (Tomb Raider and Salt among her genre offerings). Lorraine is a risky, daring role and a worthy follow-up to Theron’s Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road.

Sure, Wonder Woman’s good, but the movie and the character have been endowed with a significance and reverence this summer that overlook the sheer silliness of many of the character’s super hero trappings. Lorraine Broughton can stand toe to toe with Diana Prince.

Wonder Woman

John Wick and Atomic Blonde part ways over one significant narrative issue. Granted, the storyline in the Wick movies is geared toward the simplistic revenge tale, but it’s buoyed by the desire to see John triumph.

In Atomic Blonde, though, there isn’t a sense that anything significant is at stake, even as MI6 and the CIA collaborate to uncover the double agent and thwart the KGB and Stasi agents of the GDR. For that matter, the mystery of who the double agent (codenamed Satchel) is doesn’t hold much tension, perhaps because there are only a handful of characters carrying the bulk of the action, so the options are fairly limited.

And Atomic Blonde’s narrative structure — which starts as a case-closing interview in the aftermath of the Berlin events — makes it known Lorraine survives, worse for the wear, but survives. The punches she takes are felt, but they’re buffered by already knowing she pulls through in the end.

Those criticisms aside, the execution of the story is exceptional and — amid all the violence — there’s still plenty to appreciate in terms of movie-going pleasures.

In addition to Theron, the cast is fantastic — with James McAvoy (X-Men: First Class), John Goodman (10 Cloverfield Lane) and Sofia Boutella (Star Trek Beyond) all at the top of their game.

Throw in slick cinematography by John Wick’s Jonathan Sela and a spectacular single-take (essentially) fight scene down a stairwell that serves as a masterpiece of fight (and camera) choreography and Atomic Blonde rises above the weaknesses of its story to offer an excitingly fresh and strong female lead.