About halfway through Atomic Blonde, enterprising MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) slinks her way into a Berlin cinema. Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker shrouds the room in both light and gloom, but settling in for a dose of existential Russian sci-fi isn't on the spy's agenda. Instead, she's simultaneously running from and dispatching with her many enemies, with their frenetic fighting infecting every nook and cranny of the theatre and eventually bursting through the screen. As well as providing a visually arresting example of movie's fluid action style, the propulsive, precisely choreographed fray sends a strong message to viewers. Goodbye classics of yesteryear, hello kick-ass entertainment.
It's 1989, and the Berlin wall is just about to fall, but tensions remain as heated as the aftertaste of Broughton's favourite vodka. Sent in by her British handler (Toby Jones) and his CIA counterpart (John Goodman), Broughton endeavours to locate a stolen list of Her Majesty's finest undercover agents, whisk a former Stasi officer turned asset (Eddie Marsan) to safety, and work out just what her cavalier on-the-ground contact (James McAvoy) and a seductive French newcomer (Sofia Boutella) are up to. Oh, and she's also trying to survive the onslaught of foes and not-quite friends trying to kill her along the way.
Apologies to Bond, Bourne and John Le Carré adaptations, but when it comes to slick spy flicks, this blonde really does have much more fun. Adapted from Antony Johnston's graphic novel The Coldest City, Atomic Blonde takes a familiar story, adds a stellar stroke of casting, and throws in all of the neon-hued images and '80s-pop songs an audience could want. From a narrative perspective, the film doesn't exactly reinvent the wheel – you'll notice the been-there, seen-that double-crossing and the familiar use of flashbacks. But when it's wrapped up in packaging this vibrant, odds are you just won't care.
Indeed, to witness Atomic Blonde in action is to watch a masterclass in action, but that's far from surprising given the film's two driving forces. Let's start with the star no one will be able to stop watching — if Prometheus, Mad Max: Fury Road and The Fate of the Furious hadn't already proved Theron's genre credentials, then this film leaves absolutely no doubt. The Oscar-winner throws a mean fist, but, crucially, her platinum-tressed protagonist is soulful as well as tough. Presenting a hard-as-nails exterior with just enough of a beating heart inside, the talented actress makes it clear that Broughton's emotions are as bruised and battered as her black-and-blue flesh.
And make no mistake: this is a bruising piece of cinema. An uncredited co-director on John Wick, stuntman turned filmmaker David Leitch knows how to execute action — whether he's asking his heroine to beat her way out of trouble using household items, or crafting a stunning stairwell sequence that might just be the best fight scene of the year. And it's not just the set-pieces that Leitch gets right. Berlin bars and industrial architecture help give the film a glowing grittiness, while a soundtrack featuring everything from Bowie to George Michael to '99 Luftballons' ups the toe-tapping factor as well. As much of a blast as its name suggests, Atomic Blonde leaves all future espionage action flicks with big stilettos to fill.