Atomic Blonde: Fun to watch, but in the end, disappointing

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There’s some enjoyment, certainly, in watching the stunning 41-year-old Charlize Theron beat the snot out of skeevy-looking guys.

And you can get your fill of this pleasure from this espionage thriller, set in Berlin in 1989, against the backdrop of The Wall coming down. There are lots of fight scenes, intricately choreographed, superbly shot, and performed with a percussive, grunting-and-groaning violence by Theron and the heavies assaulting her, and these sequences go on for a long, long time.

They often feel like fights in a stage play, with the actors “selling” their highly telegraphed moves with loud vocalizations. The combatants slow down as the fights progress and they get increasingly tired and injured. They’re left bloody and dirty and scarred, and our heroine is forced to take ice baths to revive herself afterwards.

This is not to say, of course, that the action in this film is really much more plausible than that in any Bond or Jackie Chan movie. It’s just stylized in a different way, and after a while the brutality of it becomes funny–you wonder what makes these people so doggedly determined to kill each other, what could possibly inspire such loyalty and commitment in the face of such savage punishment.

But it is fun to watch. Many of the film’s brawls and stalkings are ingeniously edited to ’80s techno-pop hits, Bowie and Falco and Nena and the like, and as with the ’70s stuff in the Guardians of the Galaxy flicks, it’s a terrific, nostalgic playlist.

Theron plays Lorraine, sent by MI6 to investigate the murder of a British spy just as the East German government is unraveling, and to recover the McGuffin he was chasing, some sort of list that could restart the Cold War. This allows Theron to be spectacularly showcased, both in terms of her physical abandon and her nicotine and Stoli-charged ‘80s glamour. But there’s nothing especially distinctive about Lorraine as a character, and while I didn’t particularly notice any deficiencies in her British accent, the person with whom I saw the film did.

The star, the fights and the music have to hold us through a story that’s both complicated and somehow uninvolving. Lorraine’s bosses tell her to trust no one, including Their Man in Berlin (James McAvoy). Other shady sorts include Sofia Boutella as a neophyte French operative, John Goodman as a CIA man, Til Schweiger as a contact in a watch shop, Eddie Marsan as the Soviet asset they’re trying to smuggle into West Berlin, and Toby Jones and James Faulkner as the British Intelligence honchos.

That cast is a game and capable bunch, clearly, but the script, adapted from a graphic novel, doesn’t release their full potential. And the director, stunt unit specialist David Leitch, doesn’t find a way to unwind the plot twists coherently. The movie feels overlong to no notable benefit; stretches of it are entertaining, but it’s ultimately unsatisfying.

Atomic Blonde is rated R and plays at Tempe Marketplace, Chandler Fashion Center and other multiplexes Valleywide.

 

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