Atomic Blonde Review

There’s one line, uttered toward the end Atomic Blonde‘s twist-filled finale, that perfectly sums up the movie’s problems. A character who throughout the film has seemed to be more or less in control finally breaks down and, speaking directly to the camera, reveals that “there’s only one question left to ask: Who won, and what was the f***ing game anyway?” As a viewer, you’ll likely have no idea, and that’s Atomic Blonde‘s greatest flaw.

Adapted from the 2012 Antony Johnston-written/Sam Hart-drawn graphic novel The Coldest City, Atomic Blonde was directed by David Leitch, one half of the stunt guys-turned-directors team behind the first John Wick. That movie’s stylized and precise action is all over Atomic Blonde, especially in one extended, balletic fight scene that acts as a brutal climax. But Blonde lacks a couple of the crucial ingredients that made John Wick an instant action classic: A comprehensible plot and relatable characters.

Theron is inhumanly cool as Lorraine Broughton, a Bond-esque British spy sent to Berlin in 1989, just before the fall of the Berlin Wall. The city itself plays an important role as backdrop to the espionage, news reports covering protests and unrest punctuating throughout. Lorraine remains above it, staying true to the film’s early promise–in its stylized graffiti-like title aesthetic–that this isn’t a story about the fall of communism.

What Atomic Blonde is about unfortunately is never really clear. Lorraine’s mission is to sniff out two things: A clandestine list of covert operatives, and an alleged double agent known as “Satchel.” The former is a lazy MacGuffin, a simple plot device that serves as nothing more than a goal for various characters to pursue. It changes hands multiple times, and several characters get their hands on it, read it, and/or memorize it, which detracts entirely from its potential significance. Why viewers should care about the list is never adequately explained, so it only moves the plot forward, and fails to anchor the story in any way.

As a motivator, Satchel suffers from much the same problem. You can guess at who the double agent is throughout the movie, but it doesn’t ultimately seem to matter much. Everyone betrays and double-crosses everyone else, and the ultimate lesson–that none of them even knew what game they were playing–is a little too Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy; in other words, too grim for a movie that in many other ways is a lot of fun.

While Theron is the frost queen–she literally takes ice baths and constantly drinks Russian vodka on the rocks, the symbology not exactly subtle–James McAvoy explodes as Percival, her British contact in Berlin. He’s borderline unhinged, a party animal whose loyalties are questioned from the movie’s opening scenes, which makes later twists all too easy to see coming. But the casual way McAvoy lets cigarettes droop, smoldering, from his lips makes him a great foil to Lorraine’s icy persona.

Sofia Boutella enters this fraught world as a naive French operative whose motivations aren’t properly explored, but who nevertheless adds some needed humanity to the otherwise calculated action. She and Theron are unbelievably sexy together–one, a stone cold killer; the other, in over her head. The camera tracks slowly through lengthy shots of both women sitting around in lacy lingerie, strapping microphones between their breasts or inserting damning photographs into discrete manila envelopes. You could make the argument that these scenes and other, steamier ones are gratuitous, but Atomic Blonde ultimately comes out on the right side of female empowerment by casting Theron in the traditionally masculine role of the aloof, sexually dominant super-spy.

Even as these characters and others dovetail around one another and the plot’s threads get too tangled to follow, Atomic Blonde is tense and fun to watch. As cheesy as the ’80s can seem in retrospect, it was also a decade of wild fashion, and these killer spies’ looks reflect all the best parts. The soundtrack booms with classic and new versions of punk and pop songs from the era, a constant undercurrent that makes the movie frequently feel like a music video. These songs, from “London Calling” to a dirgified rendition of “99 Luftballons,” often inject what little emotion exists in each scene.

If nothing else, Atomic Blonde underscores that Charlize Theron is a freaking fantastic action star.

If nothing else, Atomic Blonde, like Mad Max: Fury Road before it, underscores that Theron is a freaking fantastic action star. More spy thriller than John Wick’s raw revenge action, Atomic Blonde doesn’t pop with the constant headshots and stark action of Leitch’s previous films (he didn’t co-direct John Wick 2, but did serve as executive producer). But when the tension occasionally breaks and lets Theron do her thing, this movie’s action proves just as visceral as John Wick’s, even if it sometimes overuses the slow-mo. The choreography of every fight is super tight, no swing or shot wasted, and the camera dances through and around the action in truly impressive fashion.

After multiple twists and emotional and physical climaxes, once the dust has finally settled, you’ll have a vague idea what Atomic Blonde was trying to get across. In terms of cinematography, imagery, action, and overall aesthetic, it’s a nuclear blast for the senses. It just fails to give audiences much reason to care about the fallout.

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