Charlize Theron shines in sexy, violent, beautiful Atomic Blonde

Atomic Blonde is a film that makes a dazzling first impression.

An action thriller of hyper-stylised visuals and a catchy 80s soundtrack, it raises your heartbeat to fight-or-flight levels.

It's also a film that reflects a pattern in Charlize Theron's career, a kind of bratty rejoinder to the demure beauty she embodies as the face of a Dior perfume.

Set in Berlin on the eve of the collapse of Soviet communism, it's the story of MI6 operative Lorraine Broughton (Theron), who is sent to track down a defecting Stasi spy (Eddie Marsan) in possession of a file that could blow the cover of the entire allied spy network in East Germany.

Snippets of fuzzy archival video remind you that real Cold War East Berlin was a land lost to contemporary fashion and hairdressing — but the film's crisp, neon-lit cinematography imbues the city with the glamour and industrial chic of an 80s pop video.

Inspired by the graphic novel series The Coldest City, written by Antony Johnston and illustrated by Sam Hart, director David Leitch, who co-directed John Wick, transposes the source material into a visceral experience.

He choreographs epic shoot-outs where bullets splatter brains onto white walls and characters use bottle openers or keys as makeshift weapons, while a soundtrack of Bowie and synth pop makes everything feel fluid, even ecstatic. It's an orgy of violence transformed into something perversely beautiful.

The action is framed by a debriefing interview, in which Lorraine tells a convoluted tale to her British boss (Toby Jones) and a CIA colleague (John Goodman).

Flashbacks introduce us to a slippery James McAvoy, MI6's hedonistic Berlin bureau chief, who's become too at home in the city's burgeoning party scene, home to punks, proto-ravers and Algerian actress Delphine Lasalle, a French spy who tails Lorraine.

The film belongs to the stylish, imperious Theron — with alabaster skin and symmetrical bleached fringe she struts through a world of murderous KGB thugs with neck tattoos like a homicidal catwalk model.

The camera is obsessed with her as both feminine ideal and something monstrous. An early shot of her naked in a bathroom, inspecting her battered body after another bloody encounter, employs an eerie bathroom light to make her look unreal, statuesque.

It's worth noting that Theron is a producer on this film and has a degree of authorship over these images.

It's not the first time she has played characters designed to subvert expectations of how women should be or should look — her influence is notable in Monster, Young Adult and more recently Mad Max: Fury Road.

Atomic Blonde's depiction of Lorraine is very knowing, as is its embrace of her queerness — which feels more subtle than a simple ploy to titillate the dude-bro audience — but it's disappointing the viewer isn't left with a more substantial take-home.

Frustratingly, Atomic Blonde is more adept at depicting her physical travails than her emotional ones, and the potential deeper glimpses beneath her cold exterior never materialise, despite Theron's well-crafted vulnerability.

While some of the best spy movies — even at the more frivolous end of the Bond franchise — manage to evoke the loneliness of the professional killer and offer the audience a chance to share their existential melancholy, Atomic Blonde struggles to forge a deeper emotional layer.

The other side of that coin is the sugary buzz of intense bursts of sex and violence. Atomic Blonde has that in spades.