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‘Atomic Blonde’ explodes into action

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Spy thriller led by a never-better Charlize Theron

Action movies are a cornerstone of the film industry. Moviegoers have always thrilled to the sight of people thrust into a kinetic harm’s way, a wild mélange of gunfire and quips and car chases and explosions.

Usually, those people are men. Rarely are women actively engaged with the action; instead, they are passively experiencing it under the protection of one of the aforementioned men.

But that’s changing. Slowly. And largely because of the good work done by actors like Charlize Theron.

Theron – who has shown up prominently in recent action fare like “Mad Max: Fury Road” and “The Fate of the Furious” – shoulders the load as the lead in “Atomic Blonde,” based on the Antony Johnston graphic novel “The Coldest City.” It’s an action thriller featuring espionage, the Berlin Wall and a killer 80’s soundtrack.

Don’t call it a good female-led action movie. Call it a good action movie. Period. Almost a great one, truth be told.

Theron is Lorraine Broughton, a top-tier secret agent working for MI6. She’s assigned by her superiors to take out an espionage ring that has eliminated at least one undercover agent and threatens scores more thanks to a purloined file containing a wealth of data about espionage agents, including their actions and real identities.

Lorraine arrives in Berlin – a city divided into East and West by the Berlin Wall, if only (unbeknownst to all involved) for a few more days – to meet up with her contact, a longtime British undercover operative named Percival (James McAvoy, “Split”) who has gone native and fully embraced his illicit undertakings on the Communist side of the wall. There’s also a defector known only by the codename Spyglass (Eddie Marsan, TV’s “Ray Donovan”) that presents his own set of concerns.

Lorraine and Percival are uneasy allies, but they’re forced to come together in search of this information that could undermine the Western intelligence apparatus and potentially extend the Cold War by decades. If they can’t find what they seek, the consequences could be dire.

Suffice it to say, fists and bullets start flying with equal abandon.

But Lorraine isn’t the only one who seeks the list. And as one might expect in a divided city in the throes of utter upheaval, chaos is everywhere. Combine that chaos with an inability to know who she can truly trust and she’s left with no choice but to battle her way through a Berlin in turmoil and do her best to survive.

“Atomic Blonde” is a lot of fun. There are no winks and nods – it’s played straight – but it also avoids taking itself too seriously. That’s the sweet spot for a film like this, one that embraces the blood and brutality but uses grit as a surface aesthetic rather than a core tenet.

The action sequences are phenomenal, bone-crunching ballets rendered up close and personal, athletic without being flamboyant. The gunplay is aptly adrenalized as well. Meanwhile, the “thriller” part of the “action thriller” plays out in its own time, veering away from credulity on occasion, but mostly content to stay in its lane. It’s all so over-the-top, yet it still feels fairly grounded; credit director David Leitch for finding ways to balance the frenetic and the leisurely.

But really, the lion’s share of the credit has to go to Theron. In some ways, this film could mark a real turning point for her – it’s proof that she doesn’t have to become an action star because she already is one. She’s tough and sardonic and fractured in the way of the best action leads. She’s an intensely talented performer who is not only capable of handling the action stuff, but legitimately into doing it. She’s charismatic as all get out, too. Just great fun to watch.

McAvoy is good as always here; his tendency in recent years to gravitate largely toward big-budget and/or genre fare makes it easy to forget just how talented an actor he is. He’s a great foil for Theron; the two of them build a wonderful dynamic. The rest of the supporting cast is across-the-board strong – highlights include turns from John Goodman (“Kong: Skull Island”), Toby Jones (“Morgan”) and Sofia Boutella (“The Mummy”), but everybody is on point.

Maybe we’ll reach a point where a female action lead won’t feel like such a novelty. And if we keep getting stars as talented as Charlize Theron taking up the mantle, maybe that will happen sooner rather than later.

Still, while “Atomic Blonde” may be a novelty, it more than stands on its own merits. It is a quality action flick, high-octane and sexy and entertaining as hell – and would be no matter what the gender of its protagonist.

[5 out of 5]

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