Director: David Leitch
Screenwriter: Kurt Johnstad
Cast: Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, John Goodman, Til Schweiger, Eddie Marsan, Sofia Boutella, Toby Jones
Distributor: Focus Features
Rated R | 115 Minutes
Release Date: July 28, 2017
Usually, when “atomic” is used as an adjective it means something that is propelled by atomic energy. Or if you prefer to use one of Urban Dictionary’s definitions, it’s a “devastating experience of epic proportions from which nothing is salvageable.” So when you have John Wick co-director David Leitch direct Charlize Theron in Atomic Blonde, an adaptation of the famed The Coldest City graphic novel, you’d expect something to leave an impact that is befitting its title. But Atomic Blonde is anything but atomic, at least from a narrative standpoint. It’s thin, has very few characters to care about, and casually shoehorns in 80s British pop songs. But if you are looking for a film with some great action and excellent framing, plus the occasional consumption of vodka, then Atomic Blonde is your kind of film.
Atomic Blonde takes place just days before the collapse of the Berlin Wall, and Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron), a top-level spy for MI6, is dispatched to obtain a top secret list that was taken from a fellow agent who was killed after his identity was exposed. Lorraine reconvenes with Berlin station chief David Percival (James McAvoy), who has his own agenda when he obtains the list. As you can imagine, this list will expose a dangerous agent, code name Satchel. So the two form an uneasy alliance, and they use their skills to get the upper hand on one other in hopes that they can bring the list home, alive.
In the film, Lorraine recounts the events that led up to her debriefing. She obviously lives up to her sharp reputation as she doesn’t hold any of her MI6 superior (Toby Jones) and an American CIA official (John Goodman) in high regard. Still, she delineates every decision she made during her assignment, and never misses an opportunity to disparage anyone she doesn’t respect, this includes the people in the room and David.
Percival has dealings with the criminal underground and has a few policemen in his pocket. So he believes he has an opportunity to cash in when Spyglass (Eddie Marsan) asks for safe passage out of a hostile Berlin. But for that to happen, he must give him the super secret list that Lorraine is looking for, and when he cannot offer that to him, he says he memorized the list and thus must deliver on his end of the deal.
While this would make for an excellent game of cat and mouse, the problem here is that there really isn’t much at stake. Or at least none of the characters actually care about what is at stake. The plot of the film is so scattered that it is hard to keep track of what is going on in the first place. And since there was a lack of care to establish any stakes, the film moves at an even slower pace, making it feel that much longer. Adding to the fact that it just refuses to end or doesn’t know how to end makes this film relentlessly long.
There are compelling characters, though. But again, since the story suffers, we really don’t care much about their plight. Lorraine and David’s mistrust of each other is understandable, but none of that is earned. So Lorraine is ordered to trust anyone upon landing, and the first thing that happens to her is that she encounters someone whom she does not trust. But since she is a well-trained spy, she anticipates this and proceeds to beat the living crap out of her would-be captors. And that is just the start of the action sequences.
Since this is a Leitch-directed film, it cannot get out of John Wick‘s shadow. But the way Theron fights and improvises to get out of certain situations, it’s easy to see why she is being dubbed the female John Wick. Still, Lorraine has no real emotional attachment to anything in this film. So why should we care if she has no motivation other than obtain the list? Even then, the importance of that list isn’t really emphasized because it’s trying to create this non-existent game of cat and mouse.
Still, the framing and action sequences are the clear standouts in Atomic Blonde. Leitch knows how to shoot. He also has an eye for creating a steely cold and hostile Berlin and juxtapose it with bright neon lights and 80s British pop songs. The incredible long-take action sequence that takes place in the stairwell is so carefully constructed and uses clever camera tricks to hide some of the cuts. And the use of 80s music plus some contemporary covers makes the film feel like a bone-crunching music video.
Atomic Blonde works when it wants to work. Theron’s steely cold performance is a good thing. The action sequences hurt. Leitch has an eye for framing. And the music is nostalgic and fun. But the plot of the film is rather thin since is uses every spy trope in the book and fails to introduce anything new. Leitch uses the cold war backdrop and puts a twist on the cold war noir by adding in modern day action sequences and 80s music, and it makes Atomic Blonde worth the watch, even if you have to stomach the painfully dull story.