“Atomic Blonde” definitely is a case of style over substance, but what style — and if they gave Oscars to physical trainers, those who got Charlize Theron ready for the 2017 adaptation of a graphic novel (which FX shows Monday, July 11, and Tuesday, July 12) would have been a shoo-in.
Already well-versed in the action-adventure world by then, with examples such as “Mad Max: Fury Road” and “The Fate of the Furious,” the actress plays a British spy in the late 1980s. She recounts to her superiors (Toby Jones and John Goodman) the details of a Berlin mission that James Bond would feel familiar with: recovering a list of agents operating under assumed identities. Of course, once they’re exposed, their deaths will be virtually certain.
The flashbacks show how she gets along, or doesn’t, with fellow operatives played by James McAvoy and Sofia Boutella. But what the movie does best is to turn Theron loose with a physical ferocity that only certain actresses can embody so well. Scarlett Johansson also comes to mind, of course, but only a handful of talents could get away with this so adeptly and convincingly.
“Atomic Blonde” supplies some early hints of that, but those are only setting the stage for the unquestionable centerpiece, a prolonged and enjoyably showy segment up and down the staircase of an apartment building as Theron dispatches various enemies. (The term “Stairmaster” absolutely gets a new meaning here.)
If that scene is reminiscent of the staging that went into the “John Wick” movies, there’s a good reason: Director David Leitch also worked on those films, and his background is as a stunt man, so he surely knows the score when it comes to choreographing such sequences. For the violence they entail, there’s also a balletic quality to them, and Theron is perfectly lithe and limber to be at the heart of them here.
The only catch is that it sometimes comes at the expense of true character development, the sort that would make Theron’s alter ego a fully rounded figure and prompt viewers to invest in her even more. With that said, this movie is meant to be an action machine, and it surely gets that job done.
“Atomic Blonde” has its slower moments, but much to its credit, there aren’t all that many. And when its title star does go atomic, it’s really something to see, quite literally.