There’s a very cool movie somewhere inside Atomic Blonde. It just doesn’t come out often enough. Slick spy thrillers with this particular tone don’t come along very often – balancing gritty thrills against more stylish espionage-as-fantasy notions – and that, coupled with another knockout leading turn from Charlize Theron gives it some power under the hood. But too often, all that gorgeous energy just has nowhere to go.
Theron’s character has been favorably compared to James Bond, and while it doesn’t quite match up, you can see signs of the same traits that made 007 such an icon. We first see her M16 Agent Lorraine Broughton recovering after a super-intense mission in Berlin as the Wall comes down. She’s soon put under the hot lights and order to recount her ordeal.
Her steely pushback in the face of systematic pressure is expected, but not the quiet fatalism that runs through her every word. The woman has seen what a madhouse the intelligence world can be, and knows how it usually ends for those involved. She accepts the consequences as serenely as she lights a cigarette. The fresh wounds riddling her body speak to her willingness to pay the price.
That sets a promising tone for what follows, as does the setting and the various ne’er-do-wells who inhabit it. ’89 Berlin was, to put it mildly, losing its collective mind, and in the shadows, the spy community just caught a live grenade: a grand MacGuffin revealing the names of every Allied intelligence operative operating in the East. It’s gone missing, and Broughton catches the first plane from London to track it down. Her main contact (James McAvoy) may have gone rogue – selling jeans and whiskey to eager East Berliners while trafficking in far more dangerous good behinds the scene – and yet he’s her best option to finding what she needs and getting out before the city goes completely bananas.
Direct David Leitch coats it all in an irresistible sheen of industrial post-punk arrogance, topped by a soundtrack full of era hits that trend to the punchier end of the scale. Period pieces rarely look so perfect for the intended mood as they do here, and the sort of energized collapse of the old order represented by the Berlin Wall translates into a fierce, freewheeling mood that speaks to grand things in store.
Nowhere is that better served than with the film’s action sequences: surprising, intense and impossible to look away. Leitch’s background in stuntwork serves him extremely well, and the brutally clever fight scenes are worth a look solely on their own merits. The topper is a ten-minute single shot tracking a fight up and down an abandoned building (and ultimately into the streets), with Theron savaging a seemingly unstoppable gaggle of goons through sheer indominable stubbornness. The actress herself is more than up for the physical challenges of the role, and Atomic Blonde knows how to throw her into the mayhem in precisely the right way.
And yet all of that stresses the surface details over the substance far too often, and once you dive beneath the sparkly sheen, the movie becomes a lot more problematic. A bevvy of supporting characters swirls around Broughton, without a whole lot of thought given to why we might be interested in them or what purpose they serve on her Byzantine mission. A lesbian lover (Sofia Boutella) pops up, and while the Algerian-born actress is rapidly becoming something to look forward to in everything she does, she doesn’t have a lot to work with. The same can be said for Eddie Marsan as a key Soviet defector, John Goodman as an exasperated CIA agent, and Toby Jones as Broughton’s superior: all of them champing at the bit and none of them quite certain what to do amid web of moves and countermoves that serves as the film’s plot.
The film’s fatal error comes in mistaking a given plot twist as mind-blowing in and of itself. Without investing us more in the outcome, “intriguing” soon becomes “confusing” and the lack of strong impetus reduces the action to empty noise more than once. Atomic Blonde skates along on attitude for longer than it has any right to, and Theron was born for this kind of material. That makes the effort interesting and provides it with some distinction in a field still utterly dominated by swaggering boys like Bond and Jason Bourne.
But you could feel something really special percolating here, and it never quite comes together. That doesn’t make Atomic Blonde a disappointment, just an ultimately emptier experience than it needs to be. It should have been better, and with that, its hollow nature ultimately undoes it. If you can live on flashiness alone, it knows how to get the job done. Just don’t expect much steak beneath the sizzle.