Where David Leitch’s first film, John Wick seemed to come out of nowhere, delight the senses, and spend time blending its style and substance into a heart-filled tale of revenge and bulletplay that continuously wows, his second film Atomic Blonde is highly anticipated, remains cool and distant, and heavily favors style to compensate for a generic spy action movie that alternates between being boring and being showy. While it remains a slightly-better-than-average film and, with some reserved expectations, it could be a fine summer flick, Atomic Blonde will likely only really be remembered for one very excellent 15 minute long action scene. That and Charlize Theron (Mad Max Fury Road) puts in a heck of a physical performance as the titular blonde that shows how great she will be in a better action movie.
Atomic Blonde, based on the graphic novel “The Coldest City,” is set in Berlin in the waning days of the Cold War, where unrest is high and the imminent fall of the Berlin Wall creates an ideal situation for clandestine operations shrouded by the chaos in the streets. Theron plays a highly skilled MI6 agent sent into the city to meet up with another British spy, embedded deeply under cover, named David Percival, played by James McAvoy (X-Men: First Class) and recover a secret list of spies, which includes the identity of a double agent, and a defected German security officer that could spell danger for the Crown if either were found in the wrong hands. The film utilizes the framing device of Theron’s character, Lorraine Broughton, telling the story of the operation after it has presumably gone awry in a debriefing attended by a British Intelligence officer Gray played by Toby Jones (Captain America: The First Avenger) and an American CIA agent played by John Goodman (10 Cloverfield Lane). The setting, the characters, and the method of framing the story as being told by a person involved invites skullduggery and ups the potential for suspicion.
The premise is fine. Spy stuff, intrigue, double-crossings, difficult situations that need to be escaped with superhuman-like fighting skill, sensuality used as a cudgel; all these elements can make a good film. Heck, 24 James Bond movies and a handful of Jason Bourne films have shown this to be a successful formula. Even the opening moments of Atomic Blonde have an “ooh” factor, where we find a naked, exhausted, and physically battered Lorraine soaking in an ice bath to soothe her wounds while throwing back a few glasses of vodka. A “10 Days Earlier” spraypainted across the screen a few minutes later tells us we are going to learn how Lorraine sustained her wounds, why she is in Germany, and what happened during the operation being investigated by the people in the debriefing room. That is an effective way to get an audience interested in a film.
However effective the film’s intro may be, it spends the next hour or so throwing all the intrigue away in boring, exposition-heavy, uninterestingly shot scenes that grind the film to a halt before it has a chance to really get going. There are a few sporadic action scenes sprinkled in to wake the audience back up every 20 minutes, but by the time the story becomes coherent again, we no longer care about anything going on or any of the people involved other than finding out how Lorraine got all those bruises. So, one is forced to wait and sit through scenes with limited stakes, because nothing going on matters until the inevitable holy cow!, how’d-they-do-that?, ultra-ambitious 10-minute long (cheated) single-take action sequence that answers the only question one has left… and then sit through another 20 minutes of the uninteresting characters doing uninteresting spy stuff to answer the questions they have left.
The entire film, with the exception of the aforementioned action sequence, is all stuffed full of blaring 80s pop music that seems to have only been selected to remind the viewer that the film is indeed set in the 80s. It just comes and goes, playing over the scenes without regard to content, hoping to distract the audience from the blandness that fills the majority of the runtime. This was particularly noticeable for me, and particularly at SXSW because I had just seen Baby Driver (Review can be found here) one night prior and that film uses music in such a unique and integral way, that by contrast Atomic Blonde’s soundtrack, while clearly distinct to its setting and chosen for that reason, is so much more apparent as a negative impact on the film. While I might have been more sensitive to this issue given the ease of comparison, I still feel the film just doesn’t use the power of the music to help move or enhance itself.
Okay, one last note about problems and then I will end by saying why the film is still worth seeing (hint: it is for the one insane, brutal, heart-racing action sequence). An issue that I began to develop in my head while the characters on screen were doing their best to make the idea of watching one of the many other options that the SXSW Film Festival provided at the same time as this screening seem like much better ideas is that while this film pretends to be a kick-ass, strong-female-led answer to Bourne and Bond and Charlize Theron should definitely be congratulated for what looks like it probably took a ton of training and hard work, it truly does a disservice to strong female protagonists by failing to give Lorraine any character besides physically strong, sexy spy. On top of that, the direction and cinematography is so aggressively male that the film can sometimes feel like it devolves into exploitation instead of empowerment. For just one example among many, in a series of should-be tender moments where the filmmaker wants the audience to believe that Lorraine and a French intelligence agent played by Sofia Boutella (Star Trek: Beyond) are developing a relationship of sorts in the middle of the chaos of the end of the Cold War, their sex scene is shot with that thumping soundtrack and these voyeuristic angles. I don’t mean to say that sex necessitates love, but a scene that shows our main character falling for another person (which is made clear by her later actions) shouldn’t just be in the film to serve as trailer bait.
The one super brutal, tension-filled, impossible-to-film action sequence and the general better time had in the latter 45 minutes of the film make Atomic Blonde worth seeing in the end. It is a bit of a disappointment from this director after the superb John Wick (which, by the way, gives its main character something the audience can care about), and that could spell some future misgivings about his next feature, Deadpool 2. However, with a brighter color palette to work with and some stronger characters, Leitch should do just fine. If the mood strikes you for a brain-off summer action movie with some solid set pieces and a nostalgic, though unnecessarily distracting soundtrack, give Atomic Blonde a chance. Just don’t expect it to shift the needle or shatter the gender barrier or any other kind of grand claim that usually surrounds female-led action films. Wait for Charlize Theron in that potential Furiosa solo film to do that.