Atomic Blonde is the latest effort from director David Leitch, one half of the directorial team behind John Wick (and, in case you didn’t notice, the credits specifically make a point to prominently underline his name). Continuing his trend for long-take, neon-lit action scenes, Atomic Blonde is merciless and brutal in nature with a dark comedic streak; yet, for all its strengths (particularly two sequences that will be debated as the best beat ’em ups of the year), the film suffers from a number of issues that prevent it from being the big action game changer that it aspires to be.
Told in flashback (which unfortunately undermines much of the suspense), Atomic Blonde relays the story of Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron), a hardened MI6 agent tasked with recovering a list that threatens to expose the espionage machinations of the West on the eve of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Forming an uneasy partnership with her Berlin contact, Percival (James McAvoy), she embarks on a dangerous race to retrieve the list whilst avoiding the shadowy menace of an unknown double agent. Along the way, she beds a dubious French agent (Sofia Boutella), assists with the defection of a sympathetic ally code-named Spyglass (Eddie Marsan), and savagely tangles with enemy assassins with any creative weapon she can muster.
Atomic Blonde has the palette of a grimy grey concrete wall decorated with graffiti and neon lights. Like its soundtrack, which showcases an assorted collection of 80’s Euro-hits such as “99 Luftballons,” “I Ran (So Far Away),” and “Blue Monday,” the visuals can be very appealing (and often striking) but are overused to the point that they linger on as flashy features rather than elements that truly help drive the story (as opposed to the recent Baby Driver whose soundtrack helped propel and underscore the heart of its screenplay).
At its base, Atomic Blonde‘s story is wholly unoriginal, presenting twists and turns that hardly make sense with its sophomoric set up; however, given that the MacGuffin of a lost spy list is the backbone of many a good cloak-and-dagger movie (James Bond, Bourne, and the Mission: Impossible films have all done it at least once), Blonde can’t entirely be faulted for utilizing the device as a jump start for a fun diversion. Tried and true scenarios can be thrilling if presented well and the film makes a valiant attempt to do so.
Nevertheless, Atomic Blonde is missing many necessary pieces, allowing for gaps in story and characterization to be filled with substance-less flash and spectacle in their stead. While Charlize Theron provides an admirable physical performance that is gutsy, vicious, and sexy, her character is incomplete. The film takes the idea of a cool blonde to literal lengths—heck, even her bathtub is full of ice in case one misses the point—yet she is never fully realized. While there are hints of an intriguing backstory via dream sequences and tucked away photographs, such threads never go anywhere and fade away in the jumble of the film’s many montages. James McAvoy adds a good dose of chaotic energy and his scenes with Theron are devilishly entertaining but they too are underdeveloped, impairing some of the later plot developments.
The real star of the film are Theron’s action scenes which are among the best executed of the year (pun very much intended). One lengthy sequence, a long-take stairwell battle that develops through multiple rooms and levels before graduating to a car chase, is impressive with a hefty dose of energy, blood, and bruising. It’s a rare sight to see the various players struggle and wheeze through their accumulated injuries to such degree – especially when involving a female protagonist. Despite some minor staging issues—particularly some awkward assailants hobbling about erratically as they await their turn to get trounced by Theron—the scenes are overall exhilarating and elevate the film beyond a mediocre spy thriller.
Atomic Blonde is a missed opportunity. Script and character issues aside, there is a palpable passion and effort at play. Overtly stylish, sure, but competently thrilling throughout, the film is far from a bomb – which, sadly, robs me of an atomic bomb pun (which is perhaps for the best).