Directed by: David Leitch
Written by: Kurt Johnstad (based on the graphic novel series “The Coldest City” written by Antony Johnston and illustrated by Sam Hart)
Starring: Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, John Goodman, Sofia Boutella, and Toby Jones
One half of the directorial duo behind 2014’s cult action hit John Wick returns with Atomic Blonde, and the comparisons won’t end there. Like the Keanu Reeves vehicle, Atomic Blonde is dripping with Drive-esque, neo-80s style and participates in what I’ve come to consider the 2010s “action renaissance,” a recent rejection within the genre of the nonsensical shaky-cam action scenes that have been rapidly cut to oblivion. But while Atomic Blonde is certainly John Wick‘s match in style, it doesn’t quite achieve the same level of control, precision, or inventiveness.
Charlize Theron stars as Lorraine Broughton, an MI6 agent being interviewed by her superiors, asked to recall a mission where she was sent to Berlin in November 1989 to investigate the death of a colleague and retrieve a list of names containing every single active operative working for the Soviet Union, including the name of a double agent involved with MI6 known only as “Satchel.” Along the way, she’s introduced to several other members of the Berlin Cold War undercover scene, including her eccentric and unpredictable British contact, David Percival (James McAvoy), and a mysterious French girl who keeps following her (Sofia Boutella), ultimately becoming embroiled in a complex game of cat-and-mouse as more secrets are revealed.
It’s a serviceable plot, about as much as one could expect from an espionage film – nothing earth shattering but enough twists and turns to make it fun and engaging. I did find it to hit a bit of a lull in the middle, with every beat predictably weaving between semi-rote plot developments setting up action scenes. Not that it was anywhere near as egregiously bland as something like the live action Ghost in the Shell in this regard, but the film edges toward self-seriousness over camp and doesn’t have a plot nearly interesting enough to absorb full attention. I was never truly put off at any point but certainly got the teensiest bit bored for a moment or two.
It’s not that there wasn’t much to love along the way. The truth is, I really want to love this film more than I do. It’s bathed in a deluge of neon colours, sleek and exquisite wardrobes that lend themselves more to artistry than inconspicuousness, and music that highlights all of the parts of the 80s that I don’t utterly hate (just score the entire film with different renditions of “99 Luftballons,” and I’ll be a happy man). Theron and McAvoy are excellent as the two MI6 agents in Berlin, Theron carrying the picture with a sexy gravitas, the ghost of Imperator Furiosa living on somewhere in Lorraine, and McAvoy perfectly straddles the lines between both cleverness and insanity and trustworthiness and impishness, giving the picture some needed energy and nuttiness. As much as would be expected from a director of John Wick, the action delightfully employs extensive use of tripods, steadicams, longer takes, and more complex fight choreography, with noticeable influences including The Raid and the work of John Woo in how the fights feel brutal, mostly realistic (or at least very good at enabling me to suspend my disbelief), and consequential, with the combatants often looking and feeling battered by the end of each encounter. One stellar scene in particular draws heavily from Hard Boiled, a sequence that seemed around ten minutes in length at the time and edited to feel like a single take. It’s brilliant, tense, and keeps ramping itself up, throwing more at you as soon as you think you’re out of the woods, the sheer exhaustion exhibited by the characters by the end being the perfect illustration of the journey.
Unfortunately, that scene reaches its natural conclusion, then continues on about two minutes longer than it should have, which is the primary issue holding Atomic Blonde back. Leitch, for everything he gets right, struggles to demonstrate the preciseness of an experienced director; he’s a man full of brilliant ideas without the ability to reel them in just yet, giving us an explosion of creativity that he can’t quite keep contained. Spray-painted location headers got really old really quickly after being overdone in the first fifteen minutes, some extravagant filming and editing techniques are perfect in certain situations and unwarranted in others, and the film itself reaches a perfect ending then continues for another ten minutes to provide an entertaining but unnecessary epilogue.
Atomic Blonde will ultimately come with a recommendation from me for people looking for a stylish and effulgent action fix, especially for fans of the John Wick series. However, while those films excel in both slick action and fantastic world building of an underground assassin society, Atomic Blonde is not much more than a conventional Cold War spy flick with a glossy coat of paint. It’s that sheen that makes it worth watching, but there’s not much to keep you interested if you start chipping away at it to see what’s underneath.