Atomic Blonde

Atomic Blonde

Where were you when the wall came tumbling down? In the fall of 1989, Reagan was in the Oval Office and Eastern Europe was in a free fall. Frankly, I don’t remember where I was when the Berlin Wall finally fell, but as the premise for this movie, it intrigued me from the beginning.

It’s an odd time and place to set a movie. Unless you were a student of the Cold War, you might not have paid much attention at the time. I think the public was far too occupied with whether or not J.R. and Sue Ellen were getting back together. But you’ll definitely remember the MTV hits from the ’80s that are so seamlessly woven into the fabric of what is essentially a spy thriller with a healthy sense of humor.

The story is set in the weeks before the wall comes down. Any country with sophisticated field intelligence ops has agents behind the wall in East Berlin, including Britain. When one of their agents who has possession of a reel of microfilm that names every one of those agents working for various intelligence gathering organizations turns up dead, the head of MI6 sends in one of their most lethal weapons — Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron), a tall blonde with sharp survival skills and a sassy mouth — to find the film and get out the Russian turncoat who provided it.

Her contact is the station chief in East Berlin, David Percival (James McAvoy), but it’s questionable where his loyalties lie, and he could be the double agent working for Russia and Britain known as Satchel, whose true identity is contained in the missing information.

You can call this a spy thriller, but it’s really more of a knock-your-teeth-out action picture with some terrific mano-a-mano stunts that feature Theron and her long, leather-boot-clad legs kicking the stuffing out of everyone unfortunate enough to be within striking distance. And I mean everyone. Forget Gillian Anderson. This movie feels like one long audition for Theron to take over the 007 gig when Daniel Craig decides he’s through.

David Leitch directs with a kind of reckless bravado, much like the character of Percival — a great foil for the uber-serious Lorraine, who’s all face stomping and no fun. Leitch’s action scenes, and there are plenty, are full of crashing car chases in a hail of bullets or hand-to-hand combat where the sound effects are wince inducing. Filmed on location in Hungary and Poland, it’s hard to imagine this film crew left the locations like they found them.

It’s all so exhausting and yet such a blast. Plus, songs from the ’80s are a hit parade of that era like “Der Komissar” by After the Fire, “I Ran” from Flock of Seagulls and at least 10 other great songs that cleverly underscore the scenes. The art team does a great job of capturing grungy, graffiti-covered East Berlin set against the rebellion that eventually brought the wall down. Lots of scenes feature punked-out young Berliners and true to the times, Percival negotiates for valuable information by trading it for the forbidden Levis and shiny black market bottles of Jack Daniels.

All said, Leitch does capture the time and the tone perfectly, even if most of the audience wasn’t even born when all of this took place. So call it a history lesson, with a butt-kicking female lead that should earn Theron a place at the action hero table. This “Atomic” is no bomb — it’s one of the best action movies of the year.