Late 1980s Berlin was a frightening place to be and not just because of all the David Hasselhoff music. However, it is here in the beating heart of the Cold War and just before the fall of the Berlin Wall, that Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) an MI6 undercover agent, is sent. She is tasked with investigating the murder of a fellow agent and recovering a list which contains the identities of double agents which could extend the Cold War by untold years.
We first meet Broughton at the end of this mission, submerged in an ice-bath – battered, bruised and self-administering some medicinal Stoli. It’s not your typical introduction. We quickly cut to her post-mission debrief run by her MI6 superior (Toby Jones), alongside a growling CIA operative (John Goodman), while MI6 Chief ’C’ (James Faulkner) watches through a two-way mirror. They have one simple question ‘what the hell happened over there?’
Through a series of hazy flashbacks, intercut with the ongoing and increasingly hostile debrief, we begin to piece together what may have gone down.
Theron continues her subversion of the action film genre in another role that announces anything you can do – Mr Bond/Bourne/Wick – I can do better. Broughton is a full-on bad-ass heroine and the perfect foil for the former stuntman and current Director David Leitch to take on after his uncredited work on John Wick. Their partnership is immense, with Leitch planting Theron in the heart of the frame and holding on her through luxuriously long takes, which showcase both Theron’s own unflinching physical commitment to the action role and Leitch’s balletically bonkers directing style.
This is all played out alongside a thumping 80s electronic soundtrack, which blends some occasionally on the nose choices with some nailed on atmospheric enhancers. This is all visualised by cinematographer Jonathan Sela who conjures a murky, grimy, yet neon infused world, which captures both the underbelly of a city going through such monumental change and the darkness of Broughton and her fellow cold war comrades.
Such as her local contact, David Percival (James McAvoy), the frankly tank-top-tastic slimy local station chief who is perhaps in need of a rotation back to HQ sooner rather than later. It’s almost as if Bruce, McAvoy’s corrupt, junkie cop from Filth, decided on a career change and became a spy. Percival attempts to steer Broughton and her investigation through the city, where they encounter a steady stream of competing operatives (standouts being Sofia Boutella and Eddie Marsan), all with their eyes on the List.
While the plot stretches credibility and has perhaps one too many twists for its own good, in many ways this doesn’t really matter. It is the visceral action, free flowing direction and the joy of seeing Charlize Theron once again putting in a performance of such immense physicality that pulls you in. With Atomic Blonde, it is hard to imagine seeing a better action film or indeed a better action performance, this year.