‘Atomic Blonde’ Is No ‘John Wick,’ But It Has One Action Scene For The Ages

The best action movies can be summed up in one sentence. “Reluctant cop fights terrorists in a Los Angeles skyscraper.” “There’s a terminator, and it’s judgement day.” “A grieving widower seeks revenge on the criminals who killed his dog.” That easy-to-recap premise is one of the reasons why John Wick became a sleeper hit: It’s brilliantly simple, not to mention relatable. You’d want to murder Theon Greyjoy, too, if he killed your poor puppy.

Atomic Blonde is neither simple or relatable, which unfortunately keeps it being from a classic. But David Leitch’s spy thriller, based on Antony Johnston’s graphic novel The Coldest City, boasts a deceptively cunning performance from Charlize Theron, and one of the best action scenes I’ve seen in years. We’ll post a full review of Atomic Blonde closer to the film’s release date (July 28; it premiered on Sunday at SXSW), but for the most part, it lives up to its “Jane Wick” similarities. The hyper-stylized violence is fast and furious, and the lead characters are supremely talented at their jobs.

There are major differences between Atomic Blonde and John Wick, though: Theron gives a more complex performance than Keanu Reeves (that’s not a knock on his performance; he’s supposed to be a blank slate you project your emotions onto), and the plot is impossible to follow. If anything, Atomic Blonde has more in common with the recent James Bond movies, down to the obligatory sex scene and sparse humor. Lorraine Broughton (Theron) is a top-level MI6 spy who has to recover a list of Her Majesty the Queen’s undercover agents in Germany during the collapse of the Berlin Wall. That sounds simple enough. Except much of the film is told through interrogation room flashbacks, and there are double- and triple-crosses, and most of the bad guys look the same, except James McAvoy, whose David Percival might as well be nicknamed “The Beast.” It’s pointless to try to make sense of what’s going on, so I stopped. Luckily, that was around the time of the best scene in the movie.

Remember this from John Wick?

And this from Daredevil?

Okay, imagine those set pieces, but instead of John Wick and Matt Murdock, it’s Charlize Theron (who sparred with Keanu to prepare for the role) taking on one goon, two goons, three goons, four goons in a decrepit apartment building. She’s bruised, battered, and tired (not enough action movie characters get tired), but keeps fighting, using whatever objects are within her reach, including a hot plate and corkscrew, to fend of the physically-imposing henchmen. It almost hurts to watch with how real the punches sound and feel. But you can’t look away, even though the scene goes on for something like 10 minutes in a long take that combines dazzling fight choreography with intimate cinematography. And that’s before the action spills out into the street, and the movie briefly turns into Children of Men.

It’s great.

I saw Atomic Blonde less than 24 hours ago, but if you were to ask me what the plot was or even any of the characters’ names, I’d shrug my shoulders. But I’ll never forget that fight scene. I’ll still be thinking about it in July.