The action film has always been something of a blunt instrument, but it got a bit blunter with 2014's "John Wick," now a successful franchise for Keanu Reeves. If those films indulge a criminal-underworld fantasy, the new action thriller "Atomic Blonde" -- from the co-director of "John Wick" -- indulges a spy fantasy, only one grottier than even the grottiest James Bond. With star Charlize Theron at the helm and Wonder Woman already blazing a path at the box office, a new franchise may well be born.
Theron plays MI6 operative Lorraine Broughton, who arrives in 1989 Berlin days before the Berlin Wall comes crashing down. She recounts her trying mission to secure a highly sensitive "List" to her superior (Toby Jones) and an aloof representative of the CIA (John Goodman), raising the possibility (a la "The Usual Suspects") that the flashbacks that make up the bulk of the film may not be entirely straightforward. After all, as the MI6 chief says, "Trust no one."
That's the kind of spy cliché pieced together for the lethargic side of "Atomic Blonde," a movie that isn't about anything more than the spy game and how to make it to the end of the board. As Lorraine sizes up whether or not she can trust Berlin station chief David Percival (ever-cheeky James McAvoy) and Sapphic asset Delphine Lasalle (Sofia Boutella), a question hangs in the air: can any relationship survive this career choice? Lorraine shows bisexual tendencies but playing both sides may be more of a professional obligation than a personal orientation.
Choosing sides and living with a wall down the middle work as something of a motif, as does the bathtub full of ice cubes that is Lorraine's post-bruising cool down. And there's the real takeaway, as with "John Wick": the kinetic fight scenes of a numbed professional loner. Director David Leitch is playing for style points with the wall-to-wall '80s source music (will you hear "99 Luftballons" at least once? Yes you will) and the '80s pastiche visual scheme (think pastel neon and graffiti), but he actually earns them with the ingenious stunt sequences.
Quick and brutal, observed by a dizzying camera that seems to tumble through the space along with the fighters, these set pieces hit hard, brutally hard. At their best, they also have a "how'd they do that?" impact that both signals the upped ante of stunt virtuosity at the franchise level and implies that returns will soon diminish. Then, too, there is Theron, whose kind of performance in repose keeps breaking out into ferocious fighting that suggests a feral Jackie Chan. And if that isn't enough to sell you on "Atomic Blonde," you're barking up the wrong summer movie.