If Mad Max: Fury Road and Monster weren’t enough to convince you not to mess with Charlize Theron, Atomic Blonde should do the trick. She’ll shoot you, stab you with a stiletto heel, kick the ever-loving crap out of you, use your neck as an anchor while she dives out a window Die Hard style, and pummel your genitals into a wad of pasty goo. (She kicks so many dudes in the groin.) Should the model-turned-Oscar-winner decide all she wants to do from now until the day she retires is make kickass action movies, that might be the best greatest hope for humanity.
But while the action sequences are top notch, and Theron has the smoldering Cold War-era femme fatale thing on lock, Atomic Blonde falters, moving in fits and starts through an awkwardly paced, nonsensically convoluted plot. What works well in John Wick co-director David Leitch’s adaptation of the graphic novel The Coldest City, works remarkably well; but what doesn’t, falls flat.
Theron plays Lorraine Broughton, an MI6 agent sent to Berlin just at the Wall is about to come tumbling down. Tasked with investigating the murder of a fellow agent and recovering a list with the names of every active operative (if we learn one thing from spy movies, it’s that you never, ever put everyone’s name on single, convenient, easy-for-villains-to-obtain list), she encounters the likes of David Percival (James McAvoy), a fellow Brit who’s been under so long he’s gone feral; Spyglass (Eddie Marsan), a dumpy Stasi agent looking to defect with important information; and Delphine Lasalle (Sofia Boutella), a novice French spy who primarily exists to have an erotic tryst with Lorraine. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg plot wise. There are betrayals, betrayals of betrayals, and a labyrinthine tangle of shifting allegiances, shadowy motivations, and double and triple crosses.
The comic book roots of Atomic Blonde are readily apparent. A framing device has Lorraine sit in an interrogation room and recount her adventures in Berlin to bureaucrats played by Toby Jones, John Goodman, and James Faulkner. And the way Leitch and cinematographer Jonathan Sela (John Wick, Soul Plane) construct many shots appears lifted right off the page.
Atomic Blonde doesn’t really find it’s footing until roughly the midway point. Up to then, it’s too busy posturing in stylish, neon-lit hotel rooms and being too cool for school. With a killer, period appropriate soundtrack, every needle drop is so on the nose it goes from cringe-y to surely-they-know-exactly-what-they’re-doing self-awareness. Once the film hones in on a narrative direction, it truly becomes the slick, sleek, heist-style spy thriller it desperately wants to be. It feels organic in the back half, while it forces its hand early on.
Just like I’m way down with action hero Charlize Theron, I’m also so on board with the wingnut phase of his career James McAvoy appears to have entered. He’s clearly having a blast as the unhinged, over-animated, I’ve-been-undercover-so-long-I-don’t-know-which-side-I’m-on-anymore spook. He ping-pongs back and forth between jolly party boy and sinister spy; maybe ally and maybe enemy. It’s a blast.
Much has been made of the action in Atomic Blonde, and with good reason, it’s phenomenal. Theron has a number of sprawling, epic fight scenes with A+ staging and choreography. And for as stylized as they are, there’s a raw, visceral component—these blows are heavy and have consequences, they accumulate, and the participants wind up bloody, brutalized, and exhausted.
And it’s in the action where it works best. More than a straight-up, high-octane, bang bang shoot’em up, this aims at being a crafty spy thriller, a kind of female James Bond pounding Stoli instead of martinis. With mixed results. Theron handles herself admirably, but Leitch never feels entirely comfortable in the non-action scenes. With loaded, quip-heavy banter and stakes on a global scale, it bears all the surface earmarks of the spy game, but it often rings hollow on that front.
A bit scattered and stuttering, heavy on style and light on substance, and often too enamored with its own sense of cool, Atomic Blonde occasionally becomes a bumpy ride. But when it hits, it hits with ferocity, driving home that Charlize Theron should be the biggest action star in the world and David Leitch has action chops for days. [Grade: B]