David Leitch has brought graphic novel “The Coldest City” to the big screen with “Atomic Blonde”, with Charlize Theron as protagonist Lorraine Broughton, a top-level spy for MI6. Set in 1989, in the midst of the collapse of the Berlin Wall, another conflict is happening while everyone is focused on East Germany meeting West. It begins with the murder of an MI6 agent, as a result of the pursuit of “The List”, which is a wristwatch that contacts the names of every active field agent in the Soviet Union.
We meet Lorraine 10 days following, bruised and battered and retelling her story to her superiors (Toby Jones and John Goodman) about her mission in Berlin. We discover her mission: to find and assassinate double-agent Satchel, whose identity remains the key mystery and is also held within The List. Lorraine begins her journey in Berlin by meeting David Percival (James McAvoy), her main contact throughout the days that follow.
“Atomic Blonde” really relies on gratuitous violence to tell its story. Let’s be real here: it’s an incredibly violent movie. Fight scenes keep on going, and going and going, and you’ll probably see more brains splattered on walls than you wanted to. There’s a huge emphasis on stylish and gory fight sequences, a brooding rebel hero and hefty body counts. If it’s not violence we’re getting, it’s a lazy sex scene between Lorraine and French spy Delphine (Sofia Boutella). Lazy in that it just kinda…happens. They flirt a little at the bar, and sleep with each other in order to exploit each other for information, but when there’s no information to be found, they just keep hooking up. No doubt it’ll tighten the pants of the teenage boys in the audience, but as for adding to the plot, it’s pretty much a pointless addition to the already-long and drawn out film.
The main problem with “Atomic Blonde” is the characters, who play a little cartoonish. Yes, they all kick serious ass and say all the right lines, but it’s near impossible to relate to any of them, and you find yourself not “rooting” for anyone in particular (Theron and Boutella do all the rooting in this movie). Theron’s Lorraine barely reacts emotionally to anything, which ranges from the death of her lover (we think, not much is confirmed about this relationship) to recovering from all the twists and turns that accompany her 10 day adventure in Germany – not to mention continually being beaten to a pulp.
Despite the lack of connection to any character, you really can’t fault the acting. Theron plays her part perfectly out to prove she can hold her own in a fight (she did most of her own stunts) and performed with a mesh of intensity and poise, giving her 007 audition her all. Like Uma Thurman in “Kill Bill”, Angelina Jolie in “Salt” and even Bridget Fonda in “The Point of No Return” to a lesser extent, Theron milks gold ingots from a role that might have otherwise been given to a lesser male star. McAvoy is also always a solid choice, and if “Split” taught us anything, it’s that he’s incredibly flexible in the roles he can play. There’s no one on the cast that let’s the film down, if anything that’s the confusing plot and endless “Terminator”-style characters that just keep on keeping on with endless battery life.
The action and adventure in “Atomic Blonde” is impressive. It looks great on the big screen, and Theron does an amazing job kicking butt and visually, the film also kicks goals. It’s no surprise to learn that director Leitch is a former stuntman who choreographed the endless array of well-staged action buys in Keanu Reeves’ action vehicle “John Wick”, because “Atomic Blonde” plays like a spin-off of that film. And much like “Wick”, Leitch delivers in the fight and stunt department, with the third act battle here worth the price of the admission alone. Leitch, as the co-director of “John Wick”, clearly knows his strengths and limits on this one.
The movie plays like a greatest hits of past female-skewed spy films and TV shows. It’s got a couple of tracks from “Alias”, some classic “La Femme Nikita” and even some hardcore mixes from “Kill Bill”. What saves it from being a complete riff on everything that’s come before it is a couple of contemporary remixes beyond the last groove – moments that help end the release on a high. The music is fabulous, and incorporates a neon-lit assemblage of pop classics from the late ’80s from the likes of Depeche Mode, Nena, David Bowie, Queen, New Order, George Michael, A Flock of Seagulls and The Cure, but like so many studio audio overlays in recent times, they’re not used very sparingly – in some cases even repeating tracks, which causes it to lose its impact. Additionally, it’s unique in the way that it somehow incorporates “99 Luftballoons” in both a comedic and sombre fashion, which likely hasn’t been done before.
Overall the movie is a teenage boy’s wet dream: it’s full of fights, guns, girl-on-girl sex and Charlize Theron wearing tight outfits and stripper heels. It could be that “Baby Driver” did the music side of the movie better, using the tunes to pump up the scene, whereas “Atomic Blonde” sometimes relies on the soundtrack to deter attention from a slower paced moment or otherwise generic chase sequence. If it was Leitch’s intention to make a good-looking, funky-sounding high-octane film that will have teenage boys’ jaws dropping to the ground, he’s succeeded.