Cold War spy angst and goofy old-school physical action don’t exactly sound like comfortable bedfellows, but ‘John Wick’ co-director and future ‘Deadpool 2’ director David Leitch thought he’d give it a try with ‘Atomic Blonde’. While the action is spectacular, the chilly paranoia proves to be more of a weight around the film’s shoulders, keeping it from taking off to the insane heights it craves.
Still, there’s good fun here whenever all the characters stop talking and backstabbing long enough to kick each other in the teeth.
Charlize Theron stars as Lorraine Broughton, an undercover MI-6 superspy assigned to travel to Berlin and clean up a mess just as the Wall is about to fall. A stolen list of double agent names is about to hit the black market and a deep cover agent (Eddie Marsan with a moustache to underline his discomfort) needs to be taken out of Berlin. Lorraine arrives and immediately thwarts an assassination attempt before meeting up with her MI-6 contact (James McAvoy), a wild card who takes out his frustration at being a low ranking spy by partying extra super hard. After that, it’s time for the double, triple and quadruple crosses to begin. Bodies and bullet shells pile up, Lorraine shares a steamy/sexy relationship with a steamy/sexy French spy (Sofia Boutella), and the paranoia never stops. Plus, she explains the whole thing in flashback to her superior officers played by Toby Jones and John Goodman for extra exposition, theoretical narrative efficiency, and the occasional joke.
‘Atomic Blonde’ is a convoluted Cold War thriller dressed up as an ’80s action fiesta. It soars when it’s delivering the dirty thrills of the latter genre and sinks when it’s aping the self-importance of the former. The biggest problem is that the plot is ultimately a morass of events and secrets signifying nothing. Everyone speaks in hushed tones suggesting seriousness, while the cinematography is mostly murky and scrubbed of color to hammer home how harsh this world feels. That’s fine. It’s a common tone. The trouble is that there’s not much content here beyond a spy list MacGuffin stolen from the first ‘Mission: Impossible’, a bunch of political references without purpose, and a whole lot of glowering. The movie never delivers an emotional punch strong enough or subtext worthy enough to justify all the dower drama. It might have worked if it was done with tongue-in-cheek secretiveness and seriousness a la ‘John Wick’, but there’s very little of that self-aware wit here. This is Jason Bourne stuff without even those hints of depth.
Thankfully, the cast is good and the action kicks spectacular rounds of ass. Given that this is an action movie, those are the most important components. The character actors don’t have much to do, but are talented enough to do little well. James McAvoy is a contagiously bouncing ball of goofball energy that the film could have used far more of. Charlize Theron does her stoic angsty Ms. Wick routine well, but ultimately has no character to play. Fortunately, she has plenty of butts to kick. The action sequences clearly come from a lifelong stuntman who helped helm the beloved ‘John Wick’. They’re visceral, acrobatic and extraordinarily physical. Theron handles her stunt duties well and then her bad blonde wig allows Leitch to sub in a stuntwoman through seamless hidden cuts. Many of the action scenes play out in what appear to be single takes.
In particular, there’s a jaw-dropper at the climax that combines the exhausting hallway fight from ‘OldBoy’ with the car-spinning madness in ‘Children of Men’. As a feat of action movie spectacle, the sequence is absolutely incredible. However, it also underlines the problems with the movie as a whole. Since it’s hard to care about the characters or plot at the center, the scene doesn’t carry any emotional weight and cuts out on a cool action beat rather than a logical conclusion a minute later that would have delivered more narrative and emotional impact. ‘Atomic Blonde’ is action craft executed at the highest level with so little interest in the mechanics of cinematic storytelling that it plays like little more than the world’s most expensive (and deeply impressive) action directing demo reel. That’s something ‘John Wick’ easily could have been were it not for some clever writing that ‘Atomic Blonde’ desperately needs.
Granted, the style and boom-boom theatrics are all executed well enough to make the flick work for fans of the genre. The neon lighting, overblown fashions, and constant needle-drop soundtrack of melancholic ’80s dance classics will satisfy those who fetishize the decade. It’s just a bummer that the potent political setting of the era serves as little more than window dressing. The action sequences are some of the best to grace screens this summer, but they’re strung together by a passable plot and cardboard characters who are a bore when they aren’t beating the crap out of each other. It’s fun until the movie focuses on a sad pining faces long enough to make the bubblegum action slip away into dullness.
‘Atomic Blonde’ is a damn fine action movie and a mediocre melodrama all at once, with just enough stunning set-pieces to satisfy. Nonetheless, it could and should have been better. This could have been a daffy and campy Lady Wick or the birth of a new Bourne. Instead, it’s neither, but should make enough money that those responsible for the good stuff will get a better project to string together their stunning spectacle next time.