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Alison Rowat film review: Atomic Blonde, with Charlize Theron and James McAvoy

Runtime: 115 minutes NOW that the glass ceiling in the Tardis has been shattered and the first female Doctor Who stands ready to wield the sonic screwdriver, can it be too much longer before cinema welcomes its first Jane Bond? That is the question scissor-kicking its way to the fore in the action caper Atomic Blonde.

It would, after all, be the mummy and granny of all screen breakthroughs. Daniel Craig (or whoever comes next) put out to grass and replaced by another Walther PPK-toting, Aston-Martin-driving, rooftop-jumping, kickass secret agent, except this one with two X chromosomes. Who could resist?

A fair few if David Leitch’s picture is any guide. While the stunt work in Atomic Blonde is tickety-boo, and Charlize Theron is equally impressive as an assassin hired by Her Majesty’s secret service, Leitch’s picture comes trailing just enough sexist hooey to make the viewer think the Seventies had never gone the way of the Cold War in which the tale is set. Adapted from the Antony Johnston/Sam Hart graphic novel series The Coldest City, Atomic Blonde opens in Berlin in November 1989.

The wall is about to fall and Western intelligence agencies are scrambling to tie up loose ends on both sides of the divide. Britain is relying on its man in the east (James McAvoy) to get hold of a life or death list of names the KGB is also pursuing. To make doubly sure all goes to plan, London has sent agent Lorraine Broughton (Theron) to keep an eye on things.

Cut to a darkened interview room some time later where Lorraine (no, not Kelly, alas, though that’s a film I’d love to see) is being interviewed by MI6’s Toby Jones and John Goodman from the CIA. Judging by the glum faces of officialdom, the best laid plans look to have gone awry, but how? Switching back and forth from the Basic Instinct-style interview room set-up to Berlin with the speed and slickness of a whip cracking, Leitch’s picture just about stands still long enough to tell us.

A stuntman by trade as well as an actor and director, Leitch throws everything he can at the screen in the hope that most of it will stick. If there is an odd nanosecond in which Theron is not gleefully knocking seven bells out of shady enemy agent types, McAvoy is doing one of his wild and crazee kinda guy turns, all spinning eyes and edgy cynicism. If all of this still doesn’t seem like enough bangs for your movie buck, Leitch puts the entire contents of his piggy bank into the soundtrack jukebox and blasts out top pop toons from the times.

99 Luftballons anyone? Under Pressure? Blue Monday?

Adding to the pop video/perfume ad vibe are the countless shots of Theron, seen from behind, striding into rooms and along streets. Someone is clearly a fan of Theron’s Dior work. Between the pace and the pop, Atomic Blonde is rather like the recent Baby Driver except with a fraction of the budget.

Unlike Baby Driver, this Cold War tale is a big, hot, mess, with everything, from character to plot, taking second place to the action. With nothing seeming real, there is very little and no-one to care about. Even McAvoy, an actor who can usually make the cinematic equivalent of a phone book sing, cannot break through the sheer wall of sound and fury to make any real impact.

Theron’s character is the only one to buck that trend. At least for a while, anyway. While for the most part her special agent looks and dresses the part (flat, over the knee boots, long swishy coats) I wasn’t entirely sure the mini skirt would pass muster in wintry Berlin.

As for a certain plot twist taking place along the way, one that hails straight out of the male fantasy playbook under section C for “cliches one sincerely hoped had gone the way of the dinosaurs, but clearly not”, the least said the sooner forgiven.

All told, don’t bother coming in from the cold any time soon, Mr Bond.

The other boys are not yet done with their toys.

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