It’s not correct to say that Atomic Blonde was a disappointment. After all, it delivered all that it promised, namely Charlize Theron beating the life out of hordes of increasingly threatening stuntmen, and looking phenomenal doing it, all set to a slick 80s synth-pop soundtrack. The thing is, it doesn’t really feel in service of anything. It’s also completely pointless to try and follow the convoluted and unrewarding plot. Atomic Blonde is a technical marvel for sure, excelling as a demo reel for everyone involved, but as a story it fails to be involving.
That said, it’s reel worth seeing on the big screen.
Based on a graphic novel of which I have little knowledge, Atomic Blonde maintains the episodic nature of the form. What played out over (I’m assuming) many issues of The Coldest City is all lumped together here, which causes every reveal to carry very little weight, while simultaneously nullifying information gained in the scenes prior. It happens over and over again, and even though this fleeting pace serves the action well, it serves only to drain any tension or urgency from the plot. And since the framing device is a debriefing at MI6 in which our leading lady, bruised but very much alive, recounts the past ten days, there’s already very little tension to begin with.
What happens in those ten days? Oh, ya know. Spy stuff. It’s late 80s Berlin and there’s a Wall and spies and double-crosses and cigarettes and liquor and Come on Elieen Too Ra Too Ra Ta Loo Ra. Theron plays Lorraine Broughton, a special agent tasked with retrieving a stolen MI6 dossier. David Percival (James McAvoy) is her shady contact throughout the mission, and while it’s admittedly fun to watch the two bitch at one another, so many swapped allegiances leave their motivations in tatters. In fact, I’d say both characters are solely motivated by the need to appear as if they are in a movie at all times. Theron acquits herself much better at this task. Her icy/sexy/steel exterior is exactly what fuels the more successful Bond entries, and it’s awesome to watch one of the finest actresses in history dig into a typically male-dominated trope. With further entries in a potential franchise (not sure if that’s what the goal is here), I could see Broughton becoming a deeply loved and iconic character. Presently, her mysteriousness is a bit of a liability — I’m only rooting for her because she’s on the poster.
McAvoy, a scene chewing actor if there ever was one, is left without a scene to chew, and it makes his performance grating rather than fun. Yeah, he’s supposed to be debauched and despicable, but he’s not fun to hate. He should be fun to hate. He’s exactly the type of guy that you’d expect an agent as tough and smart as Broughton to simply ignore. Then again, maybe she needed to consort with him for the mission? Is that a thing? I don’t know. By the time I began to think about any machinations of the plot I had already made the determination that following it would be a fool’s errand. What purports to be twisty and turny is really just a bunch of stylish hand-wringing which exposes itself as disposable quite early on.
But that’s not why we’re here is it?
Nope. Like I said before, we are here to watch one of our most reliable stars (and reliable action stars) ooze cool while dispatching baddies, and boy oh boy does she do both. Director David Leitch, one half of the duo behind John Wick, has raised the bar yet again. Unlike so many of today’s action flicks there is no effort to hide the choreography behind shaky cameras and excessive cuts. And it’s a good thing, too. Whenever the action comes to blows, every punch, kick, scratch, and bite is felt, not just by us but by the characters as well. If the movie itself is mostly weightless, the action, at least on a physical level, is not. There’s a reason why agent Broughton drinks Stoli on the rocks for every meal; a reason why she emerges from an ice bath multiple times throughout the movie. Fighting hurts, even when you’re winning.
The centerpiece action sequence is one of the finest in genre history. It’s a faux-one take, seamlessly stitched together from multiple long shots where the camera dances impossibly around the fisticuffs, and the fighters around the camera, fluidly and without artifice. The amount of planning that went into this scene (and really all of the action scenes) must have been astronomical, but it was all worth it. This sequence, which moves through multiple locations, each with different challenges for a camera operator interested in clarity, is alone is worth the price of your ticket.
To try and engage Atomic Blonde as anything more than aggressive/impressive style would be to waste your time, and likely frustrate yourself into disliking what is actually a pretty solid flick. I made that wager pretty early on and I’m glad I did. Atomic Blonde is a cool, slick little movie whose only real sin was coming close enough to greatness that all of its shortcomings are highlighted … in neon lights.
The good news is that Theron is as good an action star as Schwarzenegger ever was AND can act circles around just about anyone on the planet. Here’s hoping Atomic Blonde 2 lets her do so. Seriously, with all the chatter about changing James Bond’s race/gender/whatever, Atomic Blonde provides a better solution: introducing a new character capable of scratching the same itch in a different way. I’d watch another Lorraine Broughton adventure in a heartbeat.
Atomic Blonde opens in Philly theaters today.
Author: Dan Scully
Dan Scully is a film buff and humorist living in a tiny apartment in Philadelphia. He hosts the podcast I Like to Movie Movie and is the proud father to twin cactuses named Riggs & Murtaugh. Also, he doesn’t really mind when Batman kills people. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.