When the story of "Atomic Blonde" officially begins, we see a ceiling shot from the back of Charlize Theron immersed in a tub full of ice. She has just placed the first of many glasses full of Stolichnaya Vodka in the movie on the floor next to the tub.
We see that her naked back is a mass of ugly black bruises. She puts her head down in pain and stretches her arms wide to grasp either side of the tub. Since Theron, with outstretched arms, has a wingspan about equal to that of a California condor, it's a sight that gets your attention. Her arms too are a mass of ugly bruises.
Which won't surprise anyone when you discover that the director of this baby is David Leitch, a stunt man and stunt coordinator who was an uncredited co-director of the action cult favorite "John Wick." It's said that Theron sometimes prepared for this film with Keanu Reeves who was preparing for "John Wick, Chapter Two."
At the next MTV movie Awards, they're going to have a tough time deciding which movie had the fight scene of the year. I'm going with the one two-thirds of the way through "Atomic Blonde," although "John Wick, Chapter Two" was no slouch in the brutality department.
It's not that all the mayhem leading up to that mega-brawl is negligible, mind you; it's just that the big donnybrook/shootout in "Atomic Blonde" is epic and worth putting up with all the narrative woolgathering, which is more tedious than it ought to have been.
Our "Atomic Blonde" is Lorraine, a British spy who is charged with escorting a Russian from East Germany to West because his brain contains the names of enough spies to keep the Cold War going for another 40 years. She's also asked to find out the identity of Satchel, a Brit who has become the biggest Mole in Secret Intelligence Service history. She's told to partner up with the Berlin spy chief played by James McAvoy.
The violence that follows is, of course, the reason the movie was made (though let's not forget the girl-on-girl love scene with Sofia Boutella, formerly of Tom Cruise's "Mummy" movie). The world definitely wants to see Theron dispatch a bunch of thugs with a garden hose, the heel of a red pump and a refrigerator freezer door slammed to the face.
Using whatever is handy to inflict maximum physical damage is one of the specialties of "Atomic Blonde." A Russian bad guy, at one point, beats a young East Berliner to death with his own skateboard, while they listen to his boom box.
Until The Big Brawl, my patience with "Atomic Blonde" ran a little thin while all the second-rate spy narrative was followed punctiliously. It was lovely that there were people quoting Machiavelli and making fun of Sinead O'Connor haircuts, but not always riveting.
I had plenty of time to wonder about things – like, for instance, how much did Stolichnaya and Jack Daniels pay for the product placement here? And is this movie in the running for cigarette smoking champ of all time? If you try to count every time someone lights up, you won't do anything else.
And then there's this question: Shouldn't a spy be unobtrusive? How inconspicuous can a woman who's a 6-foot platinum blonde be, never mind that she's one of the most beautiful women in movies? But hey, this is a Charlize-kicks-butt movie and it's a sister film to the "John Wick" franchise. When it pulls all the stops out, it's impressive.
I must say I liked the three successive switcheroo endings, too. The actual final seconds redeemed a lot of empty prep time.
Theron earned her bruises the hard way. And her final vodka too.
3 stars (out of four)
Charlize Theron, James McEvoy, John Goodman, Sofia Boutella and Toby Jones in David Leitch's butt-kicking spy thriller set in 1989 Berlin. 115 minutes. Rated R for a great deal of strong violence with some rough language, sex and nudity.