Like Wonder Woman, Atomic Blonde feels like a solid beginning. The movie's spectacular violence begins to wear a bit toward the end, and its lead character—British Cold War spy Lorraine Broughton, played by Charlize Theron—is a little too enigmatic even for a straight pulp exercise such as this. (Broughton's permafrost reserve makes James Bond—another MI6 operative—seem chatty by comparison.) But you can imagine a number of interesting ways in which this spy-vs.-spy world might open up, and you can imagine the fun it could be to follow along in future installments.
The picture's strong echoes of the John Wick films are not coincidental. Director David Leitch, a veteran stunt specialist on various Bourne and Matrix movies, co-directed the first Wick film (with his production partner and fellow stunt master Chad Stahelski), and he is a man whose mission in life may be to stamp out dull moments and wussy dialogue. The movie kicks off with a nifty bit of automotive action and then turns into a display of some of the most impressive bone-cracking you're likely to have seen since…well, since the last John Wick movie.
The story is drawn from a 2012 graphic novel by Antony Johnston and Sam Hart. It's set in 1989, on the eve of the breaching of the Berlin Wall. Broughton is dispatched to the divided city by her shady masters (Toby Jones and John Goodman), who want her to find and retrieve a stolen master list of undercover agents. No sooner does she arrive in town than she's picked up by a crew of thugs posing as friendlies, and is compelled to do something really terrible to one of them with her blood-red stiletto-heel shoe. (The man's accomplices are treated to more traditional blasts of savagery.) After some rousingly mounted automotive action, Broughton is extracted from the resultant wreckage by local MI6 station chief David Percival (James McAvoy), who soon falls under her badass spell. "I think I fucking love you!" he enthuses. "That's too bad," she says.
Broughton doesn't trust Percival, and before long she's also concerned about a cute biker chick who's been following her—a woman who turns out to be a French intelligence op named Delphine (Sofia Boutella, last seen suffering along with us through The Mummy). Although Broughton doesn't seem like the nuzzly sort, she and Delphine have a fairly hot lesbian sex scene before Lorraine shifts back into terminator mode and starts slinging evil Russkis and Stasi creeps down staircases and across the room into walls and finding wonderfully sadistic new uses for everyday garden hoses and wine-cart corkscrews. (The movie's many bash-and-smash fight scenes derive much of their excitement from the fact that we can see that Theron is doing her own stunts, and that as one of the movie's producers she was able to insist on an unusual degree of blood-flecked vérité—Broughton absorbs her own share of jaw-rattling punches and body slams, and spends many scenes looking suitably battered and bruised.) There's also some business in a spies-only watch shop (the movie could've used a little more of this), and before long comes word that, yes, there's a traitor in the MI6 ranks.
I wish the movie were a bit more fun than it is. The requisite period-setting boxes are dutifully checked off: everybody smokes and drinks quite a bit (unlike Bond, Broughton takes her vodka straight, sometimes right out of the bottle), and the soundtrack is crowded with oldies by New Order, Nena, and Siouxsie and the Banshees. But the awkward narrative framing, which pulls us back and forth between events in Berlin and the recounting of them in a subsequent debriefing, subverts the story's momentum and precludes any buildup of tension. Also unfortunate is the color-drained imagery, which weighs down the movie's action spirit. The picture has no sense of humor, either—there's nothing in it to match the hilarious weapon-ordering scene in the second Wick film. It's also a drag that Broughton is such an inscrutable character. No one expects a lot of emotional nuance from an action hero, but even Keanu Reeves's uber-stoic John Wick has his reasons (dead wife, dead dog). Broughton is just a butt-kicking machine with no backstory at all. Next time, maybe.