Movie Review: Atomic Blonde

This bomb goes bust, not boom

What better way for Charlize Theron to capitalize on her ass-kicking turn as Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road than to give fans a female Bond figure? No matter the many faults of Atomic Blonde, one must admit the single-minded pleasure of watching Theron in action. Unfortunately, the rest of the picture surrounding its star is a hot mess. In addition to Theron’s star turn as MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton, Atomic Blonde promises a lot to its audience — bruising action scenes, neon soaked 80’s nostalgia, cynical Cold War back-stabbing, and larger-than-life characters. Technically, it delivers on all counts, but the final product will test the patience of even the most open minded fan.

Atomic Blonde drops us in Berlin at the very tail end of the Cold War. The film is sure to remind us of the grungy setting with constant archival news footage and a rotating soundtrack of the very biggest, most iconic songs of the late 80’s. The over-indulgent soundtrack is the first sign of trouble. The film cranks out tune after tune of 80’s classics until the fun of recognition is long gone. One or two of the song choices are inspired (I’m partial to “Cities in Dust” by Siouxsie and the Banshees), but most tracks are on-the-nose picks from Depeche Mode, The Cure, New Order, etc. For example, David Leitch tries to hang the title sequence on “Cat People (Putting out the Fire)” by David Bowie, which is a tough challenge, given the iconic usage Quentin Tarantino found for it with Inglourious Basterds in 2009. He doesn’t succeed.

The over-indulgent soundtrack is the first sign of trouble.

At it’s worst, songs blare over a scene transitions for about thirty seconds, fade out, and then are replaced a new one moment later. This lazy approach is highly reminiscent of Suicide Squad last year. That film tried to manufacture excitement and cover up heinous editing with a non-stop flow of famous music. Atomic Blonde isn’t as bungled as the aforementioned super-hero flick, but the songs still highlight the larger structural issues in the film.

Atomic Blonde features a classic MacGuffin — a missing list of spies and their alter egos — but can’t fashion story around it. For no clear reason, the screenplay takes place in medias res, as Lorraine debriefs her superiors about the last few days action-packed days in Berlin. The narrative device isn’t necessary and only serves to remove tension from the proceedings. At best, it provides a few tame jokes when the film the cuts from the “action” to present day. At its worst, it re-summarizes exposition and poses lame questions about who may or may not be trustworthy. That the film dares to ask, however briefly, if Lorraine is an unreliable narrator never develops into the proper conflict that this film desperately needed.

Most of the run time, Lorraine bounces around Berlin doing very little of substance with her shifty partner, Percival. From the very beginning, we’re told to distrust him. Even if we weren’t told, Percival is played with psychotic glee by James McAvoy, so we know something’s up. Despite being a spy, subtlety is not a weapon in his arsenal. Similar to the mishandled debriefing device, the Percival subplot lacks the requisite ambiguity to create suspense.

In the second half, Leitch attempts to inject well-worn spy themes into the narrative. There are a few token conversations on the toll of constant paranoia, lying, and dishing out violence. At that point in the film, it may have been too little too late, but I appreciate the gesture. Out of context, I’d even praise one cynical monologue by Percival about the depressing nature of Cold War espionage. The monologue is shot and edited in an interesting montage format that hints at a stronger vision poking through the cracks. Ditto a pitch black sense of humor that crops up at some of the most violent moments. I’m not sure what the Looney Tunes approach to violence says about the Cold War, but it’s a question well worth asking. Perhaps with a second draft, these tropes and the fun presentation could have given us something memorable. But the same preference for muddy plot development, Theron-ogling sequences, and poorly written dialogue takes precedence again. It’s hard to go more than five minutes without another 80’s song playing as Theron drinks vodka.

I’m not sure what the Looney Tunes approach to violence says about the Cold War, but it’s a question well worth asking.

On a positive note, unlike so many dull blockbusters these days, Atomic Blonde has a surfeit of visual style. Cinematographer Jonathan Sela bathes every frame in neon blues, greens, oranges which contrast wonderfully to the grit of the city. Whether or not Atomic Blonde resembles The Coldest City, its specific comic book source material, it certainly looks like a comic book. Sela also steers the film through a variety of stunning action sequences. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that the film features the best one take fight scene since Oldboy. It’s so unbelievably entertaining that you briefly understand how they attempted to make a two hour, highly-choreographed music video instead of an actual movie. Alas, it’s a movie we get, and a bad one.

I really wanted to like Atomic Blonde, but I hated it. Perhaps that’s the worst thing I can say.