Atomic Blonde Review
Excellent action and style to spare, but a dull, muddled plot keeps David Leitch’s latest from truly hitting the mark
Atomic Blonde is a stylish movie. Painted almost entirely with neon, David Leitch’s solo directorial debut is as violent as you’d expect, with the stuntman-cum-director delivering action sequences that are as visceral and exciting as anything you’re likely to see this year. Unfortunately, the screenplay doesn’t quite pack the same punch and the result is a muddled spy caper with too infrequent flashes of brilliance
Perhaps the most telling thing about Atomic Blonde’s plot is that I can hardly remember what it is, despite seeing the film only yesterday. Set in Berlin in 1989, Charlize Theron is an MI6 agent who takes ice baths and drinks lots of vodka. She has been sent to Berlin following the assassination of a fellow operative to locate and retrieve a list of all active agents that is believed to have fallen into the hands of the KGB. There’s also something about a double agent that she is supposed to investigate. The problem is that the film never seems to care if you’re invested in the plot whatsoever. Beyond the fact that characters spend each scene throwing out dialogue along the lines of “where is the list?” and “we need to get that list”, there is almost no commitment to what is already an uninspired central conceit. Rather, the story seems there solely to justify the film’s ultra-violent action sequences. Luckily, these action sequences are quite fantastic, but I couldn’t help feeling they were too few and far between. The film has a lot of fighting, sure, but when every scene that isn’t all-out action feels like nothing more than a device to get the next fight, extended sequences without any action begin to drag. The film has been much compared to 2014’s John Wick, not least due to David Leitch’s work as co-director on that earlier film. The comparison is certainly warranted — the two films are essentially cut from the same cloth — but where John Wick shamelessly acknowledged what that cloth was, Atomic Blonde tries to present itself as an altogether more involved film and this only acts to its detriment.
John Wick worked because its intentions were clear. After a simple but effective setup, we were encouraged to sit back and enjoy the balletic spectacle of Keanu Reeves murdering everyone in his way with ruthless efficiency. That film had a clear driving force that did enough to justify the hyper-violence on display. Atomic Blonde, on the other hand, trips itself up in trying to create an intriguing plot of espionage and mystery. It doesn’t fail because the twists are obvious (although they are), it fails because you just don’t care. When the action sequences start, though, the film doesn’t disappoint. There is an extended sequence towards the end of the film that is made to look like one long continuous take and it is by far the best part of the movie. Theron, for her part, was the perfect choice here. Quickly becoming the industry go-to for badass female action hero, she handles the role with an unrivaled physicality. Supposedly she suffered myriad injuries during production and you can see why. And she’s not just good at carrying out complex action choreography; there is a real performance in her portrayal of Lorraine Broughton. Broughton is mostly cold, emotionless stares and no dialogue (which is probably for the best, because Theron’s accent is a bit changeable), but where a lesser actor would slap on a deadpan face and be done with it, Theron brings a full performance through the use of only her eyes. It’s an impressively nuanced turn from her in a role that could have easily been an empty vessel for violence.
Atomic Blonde feels non-committal. It certainly commits to its 80’s, neon-infused style, but in smothering its fantastic action set pieces with an uninteresting and needlessly convoluted plot, it has nothing to do with all that cool. The film never fully commits to either its Cold War espionage story or its blistering ultra-violent action ambitions and ultimately one ends up spoiling the other. The excellent stunt work makes this an enjoyable enough night out at the cinema, but you’ll probably find the best way to enjoy this flick is to switch off to the mundane story beats and just enjoy the ride.