The fact that Charlize Theron won a Best Actress Oscar for portraying the real-life lesbian serial killer Aileen Wuornos in 2003’s “Monster” is strangely perfect preparation for her role in the new spy thriller “Atomic Blonde.”
Here, she’s Lorraine Broughton, a superspy for the British intelligence agency MI6 who is fearlessly lethal with her fists, feet and just about any kind of weapon or household item she can get her hands on. She also spends some time enjoying the company of a female French spy named Delphine (Sofia Boutella) in the bedroom.
The film opens in 1989 Berlin, just days before the fall of the Berlin Wall, as a British spy runs for his life. He is in possession of a list of all the British intelligence assets working in the communist bloc, which he received from an East German Stasi member code-named Spyglass (Eddie Marsan).
Within moments, the Brit meets an untimely end and the list is captured by his Soviet assassin. The film jumps forward 10 days to introduce a battered and bruised Lorraine icing herself down in a bathtub as she prepares to go in for a debriefing by her MI6 supervisor (Toby Jones) and a CIA bigwig (John Goodman).
From there, “Blonde” jumps timeframes between their interrogations and the events she describes taking place in the 10 days since the list was lost. Her adventures begin when Lorraine is sent to Berlin to team up with David Percival (James McAvoy), the divided city’s MI6 field officer.
Their mission is to both retrieve the list and help Spyglass defect to the West, since he also has it committed to memory. The potential problem is that David is a hard-drinking fellow prone to engaging in threesomes, causing Lorraine uncertainty about whether to trust him.
The one person with whom she lets her guard down is Delphine, who seduces her after approaching her in a bar and offering a secret about David. As she finds herself dodging assassins at nearly every turn, Lorraine also tries to figure out the real identity of a double agent named Satchel.
“Atomic Blonde” serves as an ass-kicking showcase for Theron, who displayed action chops in 2015’s “Mad Max: Fury Road” but takes things to a much more impressive extreme here. She uses everything from a high-heeled shoe to a set of keys to stab her opponents, is an expert at hand-to-hand combat, and is devastating with a gun.
Some of the sequences are jaw-dropping original— including one in which she chokes an opponent with a hose, then uses him as ballast while making a running leap off a high balcony amid a hail of gunfire. The film’s instant-classic centerpiece is a five-minute battle royale on a staircase in which she wipes out a huge team of assassins with everything from fists to furniture, while taking enough damage to be rendered utterly dizzy herself.
Director David Leitch co-helmed the first “John Wick” movie with Keanu Reeves, and displays an even more impressive way with action here. The tone of “Blonde” is lighter than “Wick,” partly due to the fact that much of its action is perfectly edited to 1980s pop classics, including George Michael’s “Father Figure” and a pair of Depeche Mode’s biggest hits.
Theron is full of sexy swagger throughout, though the audience is left largely in the dark about Lorraine’s personal life. McAvoy builds on the oily, menacing charm he’s displayed in other thrillers, including “Split” and “Trance,” to give David a wicked sense of fun, but the Russian villains are mostly interchangeable ciphers.
That unfortunate aspect, along with a head-spinning series of double-crosses, often makes “Blonde” confusing to follow. Yet like “Baby Driver,” it is the kind of film that’s meant to be enjoyed for its visceral thrills more than its logic. If you’re seeking great action, it’s hard to do better this summer. Grade: B
Stars: Fionn Whitehead, Kenneth Branagh, Harry Styles, Tom Hardy
Length: 107 minutes
Directed by: Christopher Nolen
The story of how thousands of citizens and some brave pilots rallied to save endangered troops from the English Channel after WWII’s devastating Battle of Dunkirk immerses viewers in the heart of the action via masterful camerawork and sound. Writer-director Christopher Nolen upends war movie cliches by making it more about the overall experience than individual heroes. Grade: A
WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES
Stars: Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn
Length: 140 minutes
Directed by: Matt Reeves
The final part of the prequel “Apes” trilogy possesses an epic scale, yet while the action is intense, the center of the film is a mostly depressing slog. Lead ape Ceasar tries to avenge the death of his wife and son at the hands of a vicious human military Colonel, but he and his apes wind up captured for a major portion of the film. Well-made but mostly morose. Grade: C
THE BIG SICK
Stars: Kumail Nanjiani, Holly Hunter, Ray Romano, Zoe Kazan
Length: 124 minutes
Directed by: Michael Showalter
Starring rising comedy star Nanjiani as a younger version of himself, “Sick” deals with the struggles he and his wife encountered early in their relationship when she endured a medically induced coma and he was caught between pressure from both sets of their parents. Managing to find strong laughs and warm emotion in a fresh twist on romantic dramedies, it’s a winner. Grade: A
Stars: Tom Holland, Michael Keaton, Robert Downey Jr.
Length: 133 minutes
Directed by: Jon Watts
The third launch of a Spider-Man series of films in 15 years is also the first produced by Marvel, and it pays off with an assured, fun approach that mixes plenty of laughs with the action. Michael Keaton as Vulture is one of the best Marvel villains yet, while Holland fills the shoes of 15-year-old alter ego Peter Parker with youthful energy. Grade: A
Stars: Ansel Elgort, Lily James, Kevin Spacey, Jamie Foxx, Jon Hamm
Length: 113 minutes
Directed by: Edgar Wright
This whiz-bang heist flick features the best car chases in many years, while writer-director Edgar Wright (“Shaun of the Dead”) brings his inventive mix of laughs and violence to full boil using an ace cast that fills their roles out colorfully. The soundtrack is propulsive, non-stop fun and makes this the most original and entertaining movie of the summer so far. Grade: A
Stars: Sally Hawkins, Ethan Hawke
Length: 115 minutes
Directed by: Aisling Walsh
The moving real-life tale of Canadian folk artist Maud Lewis, who overcame crippling rheumatoid arthritis by becoming a beloved painter of outdoor scenes in her rural Nova Scotia hometown while also contending with a difficult but loving relationship with a loner named Everett. A quiet drama amid the bombastic blockbusters of summer, “Maudie” is riveting due to its terrific performances and heart. Grade: A