Easily the most thrilling aspect of the new film Atomic Blonde is watching the fiery freedom of Charlize Theron. Long an actress of uncommon fearlessness, Theron thrives as Lorraine Broughton, an agent dispatched by Britain’s MI6 to Berlin as the creaking collapse of the Cold War is threatening to bring down the wall that divides the city. While Theron has it in her to do refinement, intricately messy character work, and high beam important fare, there is a different, devilish sharpness to her as she gets down to the business of delivering and taking punches. As she showed in Mad Max: Fury Road, she can be as commanding as any big male titan in the action genre.

In the role, Theron also employs the approach that has been her secret weapon from film one: treating the role with respect no matter what it is, which in turn brings authenticity to even the most ludicrous fare. (The projects dire enough to undercut this ability are rare, though they do exist.) Kurt Johnstad’s screenplay (based on the 2012 graphic novel The Coldest City) has only the barest interest in Lorraine as anything other than a figure of striding cool, a glamor girl with a split lip and a mean left hook. Without caving in to the brand of trembling vulnerability that would never be expected of a male action here, Theron shows little signals of the human being within the expert spy. She always proceeds with certainty, but also needs to figure things out, improvising solutions as she stays afloat with the swirling eddy of chaotic fisticuffs.

Atomic Blonde is officially the feature directorial debut of David Leitch (he’s acknowledged to have done uncredited work on John Wick), a stuntman and action choreographer with dozens of credits to his name. As might be expected, he excels at the brutal set pieces, structuring them with an eye towards strikingly honest physicality. When Theron flips an adversary over her back, sending him tumbling down a flight on stairs, it looks like work. Other filmmaking aspects are shakier. Leitch occasionally overdoes the image-building, flipping the camera and overlapping scenes to the point of near goofiness. And any time he’s working with an actor who’s less automatically capable than Theron, the performance shows some ugly seams (James McAvoy is especially stranded on an island of hamminess as a fellow agent). An extended continuous shot following one action sequence in and out of an apartment building demonstrates the near-greatness Leitch can pull off when operating in his area of expertise. An unfortunate amount of the remainder of the film illustrates the struggles when he’s outside of that realm.

Of course, Leitch’s infractions can be considered minor and wholly forgivable because he got it exactly right when confronted with the most important task of Atomic Blonde. Point the camera at Theron, and accept the grace that comes with letting her be in charge of every moment.

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