Film review | Atomic Blonde

While Atomic Blonde drips with style, its choreography does not impress as much as it could have, even more so considering how good Charlize Theron is throughout

The Blonde Fantastic: Charlize Theron is equal parts style and brutality in slick genre piece Atomic Blonde
The Blonde Fantastic: Charlize Theron is equal parts style and brutality in slick genre piece Atomic Blonde

By Marco Attard

2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road brought about a couple of realisations - George Miller was still able to direct one of the finest action films of the decade, and South African actress Charlize Theron has what it takes to be an action star. Someone in Hollywood clearly came to this same conclusion, and three years after Mad Max’s return to the big screen we get Atomic Blonde, where Theron takes the spotlight as a superspy protagonist that’s parts James Bond and Jason Bourne, only with even more capability in the men breaking department. After all, neither Bond nor Bourne is forced to do their job while clad in thigh-high boots and stiletto heels...

Based on The Coldest City, a 2012 comic series by scribe Antony Johnston and artist Sam Hart, Atomic Blonde is nominally an espionage thriller set in the year 1989, on the eve of the collapse of the Berlin Wall. MI6 Lorraine Broughton is sent to Berlin on a mission to recover a MacGuffin dubbed the List, a list (obviously!) of all the active field agents from all sides of the Cold War working in the city. The search gets her in contact with shifty British spy David Percival (James McAvoy), who in turn is in touch with “Spyglass,” (Eddie Marsan), a Stasi turncoat who claims to have memorised the entire List. Also involved is a predictably sizeable number of Russian toughs, as well as Delphine Lasalle (Sofia Boutella), a French spy on a first field assignment with a major crush on Lorraine - a crush that actually gets requited, big time.

While the above plot synopsis makes Atomic Blonde sounds like standard genre fare with a period setting, Atomic Blonde promises something different in the shape of its director - David Leitch, who was one half of duo behind modern action classic John Wick. Another connection is cinematographer Jonathan Sela, whose vision of 1989 Berlin is similarly awash in red and violet neons. As such, the trailers and promotional materials promised the film was going to be nothing less than gender-bent version of Keanu Reeves’ sleeper hit. Does it manage to satisfy such lofty expectations? In action terms, not entirely, this is ultimately not the case. While Atomic Blonde drips with style, its choreography does not impress as much as it could have (even as it stands out from most of the superhero-based pabulum Hollywood pushes as action cinema), even more so considering how good Charlize Theron is throughout. A particularly disappointing scene has a fight set in front of a projection of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker - a potentially amazing sequence, only one cut way too short.

An exception to this state of action affairs comes around the halfway mark. An attempt to squirrel Spyglass to safety goes awry, forcing Lorraine to fight her way down a building’s stairway through a handful of Russian agents. This might not sound like much, the action here could belong to another film - gone is the neon and stylisation, replaced with a cold, unadorned aesthetic that is almost cinéma vérité. This culminates with a (faux) 10-minute single take where the camera restlessly follows Lorraine as she punches, kicks, stabs and shoots her way through her assailants. The fighting is sharp and brutal, and while the genre dictates the protagonist emerges victorious, Theron’s performance is such to convince that this might not be case, as her Lorraine takes a more than a fair share of brutality. This is standout action cinema, and a sequence that will be spoken about for years to come.

The rest of the film can also be described in the terms used for the stairway-based action - it’s decent enough, if nothing worth writing much about. The espionage plot is ultimately muddled to the point of being uninteresting, while the sexual politics are potentially iffy (is Lorraine’s relationship with Delphine a win for the representation of bisexuality on the big screen or mere titillation? The answer might light in just how much time Theron spends clad in little more than lingerie and fishnet stockings). Then there’s the matter of the soundtrack, which takes the currently popular approach of sticking 1980s music tracks at every possible excuse. 99 Luftballoons pops up not once, but twice, Lorraine is introduced to the tune of David Bowie’s Cat People, the secret police appear just as Falco’s Der Kommissar is playing. At times the effect reaches Suicide Squad levels of obnoxiousness, making this reviewer wish the production took some time to research the actual German pop that would have been playing West Berlin nightclub… which probably would not have been Eurythmics.

Ultimately, Atomic Blonde trips in its attempts to shoehorn the John le Carré-style plotting of the source material in an action mould that in turn is attempting to be both Bourne and Wick. It ultimately still is a very watchable genre fluff, but one hopes it gets a better sequel, if only for more of the glorious sight that is Theron savagely breaking men. Now that is truly what sweet dreams are made of.