Charlize Theron battles Communist thugs in "Atomic Blonde."

Why didn’t they try this before? Charlize Theron first came to attention back in 1996 with her small role in 2 Days in the Valley, where she fought Teri Hatcher and completely stole away that third-rate Tarantino rip-off. Since then, she’s been in action films, but seldom one that has put her martial-arts skills front and center. (The only one, in fact, would be 2005’s great-looking and mortally flawed Æon Flux.) We should have had three or four other movies like Atomic Blonde instead of relegating her to the token parts in The Italian Job and Prometheus, but I’m glad this Cold War spy thriller gives her such a deadly stylish showcase.

The story is adapted from Antony Johnston and Sam Hart’s 2012 graphic novel The Coldest City. Theron plays MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton, whom we first see being debriefed in London by her superior (Toby Jones) and a CIA bigwig (John Goodman) over a mission in Berlin that has gone tits up, as the British say. We then see the mess unfold in flashback, as she’s sent to the East German capital in November 1989, mere days before the Berlin Wall falls, to recover a list of agents and operations that was supposed to be delivered to British intel. Lorraine’s there to keep the list from falling into Communist hands, but she immediately runs into static, first from two KGB guys who try to kill her as soon as she leaves the airport, and then from Percival (James McAvoy, layering viciousness with palpable disgust for his job), the Scotch-sozzled MI6 station chief with no qualms about stabbing informants who outlive their usefulness.

Unfortunately, as a spy thriller, this is riddled with problems. The various double-crosses and betrayals come too thick to keep track of, and director David Leitch has little feel for the atmosphere of 1980s Berlin. Nor can he evoke the sense of paranoia that the best spy thrillers do, that nothing is private and every conversation and interaction is being listened to by unfriendly parties. The final plot revelation (not the same as the one in the graphic novel) makes no sense whatsoever. One big change from the graphic novel is that the French spy whom Lorraine beds (Sofia Boutella) is a woman rather than a man. The movie treats this as no different from the many outings where James Bond seduces a beautiful woman as part of the mission, and for a popcorn thriller, this is quite enlightened. Still, the filmmakers seem to want to give this relationship emotional weight, and they can’t manage it.

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As an action flick, though, this is stellar. The vaunted soundtrack is stuffed with hits from the 1980s, and while the selection isn’t always creative (“London Calling,” “99 Luftballons”), it does make you wonder why no one ever used “Voices Carry” in a spy thriller before. There’s one fight sequence where Lorraine takes on a bad guy in front of a movie screen showing Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, which will give a nice laugh to cinephiles like me. However, the highlight by far is the lengthy sequence, edited in what looks like a single unbroken take, in an abandoned East German apartment building where a KGB sniper team is ensconced. Lorraine goes up to the fourth floor and works her way down to the street, being punched, kicked, clubbed, choked, and thrown down two flights of stairs while she dispatches seven members of a KGB sniper team, all of whom require multiple gunshot and stab wounds before they die. This sequence is destined to be viewed millions of times on YouTube and placed on clickbaity internet movie listicles alongside similar one-take action scenes from Children of Men and The Revenant. This movie fully merits that kind of fame, anchored as it is by Theron’s sultry presence and hard-core skills.

Atomic Blonde

Starring Charlize Theron and James McAvoy. Directed by David Leitch. Written by Kurt Johnstad, based on Antony Johnston and Sam Hart’s graphic novel. Rated R.