If there’s one thing Charlize Theron can do better than anyone it’s rock a pair of sunglasses. They make her look so hot set in tandem with her chic platinum hairdo, it’s positively nuclear; which is appropriate since the spy-thriller she’s donning those shades in is the incipiently titled “Atomic Blonde.” It’s a bomb, all right. But Theron makes for one helluva sexy detonator, creating quite a spectacle from behind those spectacles.
She shoots, she punches, performs judo and goes swimming in the lady pond. But as spectacular as that all is, it’s laid to waste by a couple of chauvinists in director David Leitch (“John Wick”) and writer Kurt Johnstad (“300″). They work under the guise of feminism, presenting a kick-ass woman in Theron’s MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton, who they undermine by consistently reducing to little more than a sex object by dressing her in tiny skirts, suspender fishnets and low-cut blouses. That is at least when she’s not cavorting naked in the sack with another scantily clad female agent in Sofia Boutella’s Delphine.
In exchange for this unnecessary display of flesh, they compensate by enabling Lorraine to smack down every man crossing her path, including her Berlin station chief David Percival (“Split’s” miscast James McAvoy), who — like her — might be much more than he appears. That leads me to my other major complaint with Johnstad’s scattershot script, and that is its cliched flashback structure, which removes any suspense from whether Lorraine will survive nearly two hours of attacks by men — often in large groups — representing every spy organization from the KGB to the East German Stasi to her mates at MI6. She’s battered and bruised as she begins the movie by walking into headquarters to be debriefed by her superior (a wasted Toby Jones) and a mysterious CIA operative (ditto John Goodman) seeking answers as to why her mission behind the Berlin Wall resulted in so many fatalities and property damage. Isn’t it obvious why she’s a mess? Not to Leitch, who spends the next 115 minutes giving us a blow-by-blow account of what amounts to a mostly tedious tale about Lorraine chasing down a McGuffin (some sort of list) in politically volatile Berlin in the days leading up to the fall of The Wall in November 1989. Cue the string of New Wave hits, as Leitch renders his movie in the form of an elongated music video (think a 2-hour version of “Don’t You Want Me”) in which intrigue is laid to waste by nonstop flash.
NO, this is not your father’s John le Carre. It’s more like some nerdy kid’s comic book, which makes sense since it’s based on such — OK, graphic novel — by Antony Johnston. Leitch films it accordingly, making every frame look like a panel from a comic, minus the “pows” and “bams” in the dialogue bubbles. It’s actually fun for a short while, but when the story proves to be nothing more than a succession of long, drawn-out action scenes, your enthusiasm rapidly wanes. What little story that exists is further muddled by an excessive amount of characters — none of them developed — popping in and out of scenes almost indistinguishable. They’re basically just bodies for Lorraine to bend, spin and mutilate with impunity.
The only thing that keeps you watching — besides the terrific music — is Theron, who on the heels of her fine work in the Oscar-winning “Mad Max: Fury Road” establishes herself as the world’s foremost action heroine (sorry Wonder Woman) by bringing style and — yes — beauty to the old-fashioned butt-kicking. Since she’s not presented much of a character, Theron compensates by drawing on her seductive charisma, which serves her well right up to the twist-filled ending.
That despite those twists never being earned. They are merely sprung on us, as if Johnstad had no idea how to end his already scant story. We’re expected to just accept the big reveals and go “wow, I didn’t see that coming.” The cheap tricks might fool some, but most will groan in disappointment because “Atomic Blonde” isn’t 007; it’s double-O zero.
Cast: Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, John Goodman, Toby Jones, Sofia Boutella, Eddie Marsan.
(R for sequences of strong violence, language throughout, and some sexuality/nudity.)