There’s a unique feeling in seeing action hero greatness. Action films are arguably my favorite genre of film to watch and write about, and watching somebody reach a new level of greatness in the genre is just always a joy, similar to watching a great athlete reach their potential and just dominate their sport. Charlize Theron has reached that new level of action hero glory here in Atomic Blonde. Adapted from the graphic novel The Coldest City, MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton (Theron) is sent to Berlin in the final days before the Berlin wall came down to retrieve a list of every undercover special agent in the city before it falls in the wrong hands.
Those who know me know I love John Wick with my whole heart, so David Leitch (co-director of the first John Wick film) is good money forever in my book. He brings a similar mixture of cool, heightened, brutal violence and inventive prop use to his action sequences. All his years working in stunts, he knows how to make it look good. He never has to hide stunts in cuts, letting the action flow in elongated, clean takes with the editing coming at the precise time to enhance the visceral feel of the action. He includes one action sequence that involves a screening of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker happening in the background, and if that does nothing for you I don’t know what to tell you. There’s also a one-take sequence that goes on for like 10 minutes following Broughton as she fights through several men up and down an abandoned building, then back out onto the street as she evades more pursuers in a car chase. I’m the biggest sucker in the world for one-take sequences, but good lord this one is really something. Theron is working through some extremely brutal fight choreography and by the end of the sequence she is so worn out and beaten up, and she doesn’t have to sell you on how absolutely exhausted she is – you just watched her do some unbelievable physical feats for several minutes straight. It’s rare to see an action sequence where you truly believe the character/actor is exhausted after performing it. It also features one of my favorite action mini-tropes, the “henchman that won’t die” as a little cherry on top. I was sweating, you’ll need a cigarette after watching it.
Theron earned the top spot in my yearly action hero power rankings in 2015 for Mad Max: Fury Road. I’m so happy she kept at action filmmaking, because she showed in Fury Road that she had what it took to be an action star. Whenever someone does something as impressive as what she did with that film, you wonder if they have another level they can hit. Theron has several, hitting them all in Atomic Blonde. The action choreography and stunts she’s performing are absolutely brutal and physically tolling. You feel beaten up just watching her do what she does. One of the key check marks for a great action hero is how much of the stunt work they’re able to do themselves. Theron does it all herself, allowing Leitch to highlight her work by not having to hide anything in quick cuts and stunt doubles. You have to be a certain peak of fitness to do what she’s doing here, one that few can attain. Theron is out here doing incredibly grueling, physical feats of greatness – meanwhile, I’m only 25 and I walked up some stairs this morning and was ready for a nap afterwards. The action hero power rankings this year are going to be incredibly tough this year with her and Keanu Reeves battling for the top spot.
Leitch nabs a superb supporting cast to elevate the film and the action with talents like John Goodman, Toby Jones, James McAvoy(Sleazy, coke hangover McAvoy is one of my favorite types of McAvoy performances), Sofia Boutella, Eddie Marsan, Bill Skarsgard and Til Schweiger. The movie has a bitchin soundtrack of new wave hits that it gleefully employs to giddy effect. If you’ve ever wanted to see extremely badass action scenes and sequences of intrigue set to George Michael’s “Father Figure” or Siouxsie & the Banshees “Cities in Dust”, come join me and bask in the glory. In several scenes, the music will switch between diegetic and non-diegetic sound to enhance the heightened reality and ecstasy of the action. It’s just pure joy how the film uses its soundtrack. Even in a year with Baby Driver, Atomic Blonde has a wonderful soundtrack that it employs just as excitingly.
The film has silly twists, but when the action and feel of it all is so ecstatic, you’re able to forgive trips in the plotting. For what it’s worth, the film actually does a better job at juggling it all than the graphic novel, and providing reason and motive for the double crosses the characters make. Besides, all of those things are secondary to the main point of the film, which is that Theron is undeniably one of our most exciting action heroes, and I hope she continues to blow us away with what she can do in this genre.