First, she gave us the fearsome Furiosa in George Miller's outstanding action epic "Mad Max: Fury Road." Now, Charlize Theron bestows upon us a new and equally riveting action icon, playing the sexy and unstoppable MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton in stunt-man turned director David Leitch's follow-up to "John Wick," the eye-popping and enthralling "Atomic Blonde."
Full of lurid style, mind-melting stunts, unrepentant sex appeal, and a crowd-rousing soundtrack, this collaboration between Theron (who also produces) and Leitch plays less like a movie, and more like a rock show. The audience who flooded into Austin's biggest theater for"Atomic Blonde"s World Premiere hooted, cheered, and applauded throughout, begging for more, more, more. Theron delivered, with a wink and one of the most ass-kicking action heroes to ever hit the big screen.
Set against the backdrop of 1989 Berlin -- just days before the fall of its loathed and graffiti-splattered wall -- "Atomic Blonde" is fueled by a roaring soundtrack that folds in music by Flock of Seagulls, Der Kommissar, David Bowie, Queen and many more. Each track adds a dizzying shot of adrenaline to fight scenes that are brutal, sprawling, and absolutely extraordinary. Theron's fights are not the glamorous kind where the hero never endures more damage than a slight trace of blood that won't obscure their handsome face. Instead, this steely spy is introduced covered in gnarly bruises, bathing in a tub of ice to numb the pain. Her Broughton approaches every fight--be it a shoot out or a hand-to-hand combat showdown--with a kill or be killed attitude that leaves nothing on the table. In one scene, she battles a big towering titan of a man, and the two clash so violently that both are dazed as they struggle to their feet for another gruesome go. The authenticity and intentional awkwardness of these moments is what makes the mad whimsy in others all the more striking.
"Atomic Blonde's" already got tongues wagging over a stairwell-set sequence where Broughton battles a small army with a terrifying and thrilling ferociousness. (You can see a portion of this in the recently released red-band trailer.) Shot in one long, punishing take, this scene is astonishing in its complicated choreography, impactful blows, and Theron's relentlessness. Mark my words: It'll be up there with "Oldboy"s hallway scene as one of the best fight sequences of the 21th century. And yet my favorite of all her fights involves the ice-cold agent improvising with a rubber hose, using it as a whip, lasso, and escape method. But really, with so much truly awesome action to choose from, no pick for favorite fight is wrong when you're talking "Atomic Blonde." Theron is a fabulous force to be reckoned with in every single frame.
'Sure, sure, but what's the plot?' you might be wondering. Based on Antony Johnston and Sam Hart's graphic novel "The Coldest City," "Atomic Blonde" follows Broughton on a mission to Berlin, where she must chase down a watch that contains the true identities of a slew of secret agents. Once she's hit the divided city, this stylish spy crosses paths with a shady fixer (James McAvoy), a spooked informant (Eddie Marsden), and a sultry French agent ("Kingsman: Secret Service"s Sofia Boutella) with whom she falls fast and flawed. (Thinks Blonde, James Blonde.) The story is serviceable, though a bit predictable. Mostly it feels like the transport from one fight scene to the next. But I dare you to care when the full force of Theron is unleashed in action scenes of battle and hot, hot sex.
Ruthless, bisexual and the coolest blonde, Broughton is a rock star from the moment she emerges on screen. The thumping '80s soundtrack swarms around her like she's its Killer Queen Bee, accenting her punches and gunshots with an orgasmic rush. The cinematography of Jonathan Sela and stunt co-ordination of Sam Hargrave and Domonkos Pardanyi creates a jaw-dropping dance, with Theron as its Fred Astaire, and the camera as her loyal Ginger Rogers, always in sync, always making her look marvelous, but in this case also phenomenally menacing. Then the costumes of Cindy Evans and hair stylings of Enzo Angileri combine to drape her in killer black-and-white ensembles, slinky red dresses dripping in glitter, and that acid-blond bob with bangs that hang like a threat. Living in a world of smoke and neon lights, she rises as a flawless figure of might and tenacity. Audiences will be helpless but to bow down, as "Atomic Blonde" has come to take your breathe away, and leave you giddy, gasping for more.
Between "Atomic Blonde" and "Baby Driver," SXSW is single-handedly carving out a new subgenre that fuses mind-blowing action with a playful whimsy, and exhilarating musicality. The action genre will be never be the same. Instead, it'll be more inclusive, more daring, more bonkers, and all-around better.
Following its world premiere at SXSW, "Atomic Blonde" will hit theaters like a wrecking ball on July 28.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This review was first published March 16, 2017.