Charlize Theron plays an undercover MI6 agent who is sent to Berlin during the Cold War to investigate the murder of a fellow agent and recover a missing list of double agents in “Atomic Blonde.” (Jonathan Prime/Focus Features via AP)

Charlize Theron plays an undercover MI6 agent who is sent to Berlin during the Cold War to investigate the murder of a fellow agent and recover a missing list of double agents in “Atomic Blonde.” (Jonathan Prime/Focus Features via AP)

Cliche spy movie ‘Atomic Blonde’ substitutes attitude for style

The spies in “Atomic Blonde” are in Berlin in November 1989, but they’re not concerned about how the wall is about to fall. They’re playing their own spy game.

Maybe this irony is intentional, as a statement on how espionage activities miss the forest for the trees. Or maybe it’s a lesson in how movies can’t tell wonderful stories like the dismantling of the Berlin Wall because they tend to concentrate on cool secret agents fighting in stairwells.

Granted, there’s some awesome stairwell fighting in “Atomic Blonde.” Some of this is thanks to director-stuntman David Leitch (one of the creators of “John Wick”) and his crew of fight choreographers. A lot of it is due to the sheer dedication of Charlize Theron, now fully in the Liam Neeson phase of her career.

She plays Lorraine Broughton, a British agent assigned to secure the safety of a Soviet operative (Eddie Marsan) who’s ready to flee to the West. Her contact in Berlin is a burn-out case named David Percival (James McAvoy), a cliche of the spy genre if ever there was one.

But everything’s a cliche here: the sleek French spy (Sofia Boutella, from “The Mummy”) who hangs out at hip clubs; the presence of Toby Jones, contractually obligated to appear in all spy movies; and the fact that we can tell the Soviet agents by their communistic beards, while the Western agents wear thigh-length leather jackets with turtlenecks. Because that’s what spies wear.

The fight scenes really are good, and whatever digital editing was done to extend them (or substitute a stunt double for Theron) is impossible to detect. The idea of staging most of the action to a jukebox of ’80s hits might be slightly more effective if the film featured just one song that hasn’t already been used to death in movies.

Theron, crowned by a hairstyle that strongly calls to mind Spinal Tap’s David St. Hubbins, unleashes many athletic moves. The only thing that doesn’t move is her face. Playing an impassive hero is one thing, but some animation would be welcome — even the totem pole named Keanu Reeves managed a few expressions in “John Wick.”

The storyline (adapted from the graphic novel “The Coldest City”) is confusing, although you expect that in a spy picture. The real problem here is that attitude substitutes for style. And a movie can only get by so long on attitude.

“Atomic Blonde” (2 1/2 stars)

Charlize Theron, now in the Liam Neeson phase of her career, is a spy in Berlin in 1989. There’s some great fight choreography, and Theron is in athletic, if inexpressive, form. But the situation is one big cliche, and manages to reduce the fall of the Berlin Wall to a scenic backdrop. With James McAvoy.

Rating: R, for violence, language, nudity

Opening Friday: Alderwood Mall, Cinebarre Mountlake Terrace, Everett Stadium, Galaxy Monroe, Marysville, Stanwood Cinemas, Meridian, Pacific Place, Sundance Cinemas, Thornton Place Stadium, Woodinville, Cascade Mall, Oak Harbor Plaza

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