UK Release Date: 9th August 2017
Runtime: 115 minutes
Director: David Leitch
Writer: Kurt Johnstad
Starring: Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, Sofia Boutella, Eddie Marsan, John Goodman, Toby Jones, Bill Skarsgård
Synopsis: A British agent goes deep undercover in Cold War Berlin in order to recover a list of clandestine operatives that, if it falls into the wrong hands, could extend the Cold War for several decades.
Two things have happened in the past few years to lead us to Cold War actioner Atomic Blonde. Firstly, John Wick exploded on to cinema screens in 2014, revealing co-director David Leitch as one of the foremost practitioners of a particularly brutal, Hong Kong-inspired brand of big screen fight choreography. A year later, a one-armed Charlize Theron absolutely stole the show in Mad Max: Fury Road and established herself as a bona fide action hero. So what we now have is Atomic Blonde, in which Leitch teams with Theron for a movie that is batty, brutal and occasionally brilliant. Unfortunately, it doesn’t make even a lick of sense.
We follow British agent Lorraine (Theron) as she is interrogated by her MI6 superior (Toby Jones) and CIA colleague (John Goodman) about a disastrous operation she took part in immediately prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall. Lorraine is sent to Berlin in order to help the rather feral British undercover agent Percival (James McAvoy) to find a list which, if it were to fall into Soviet hands, could reveal the identities of every active operative in the country and extend the Cold War for decades. While attempting to track down the list, Lorraine is forced to deal with jittery Stasi defector Spyglass (Eddie Marsan) and a mysterious French woman (Sofia Boutella), who is somehow involved in what is happening.
Atomic Blonde deserves credit for having the truly unique feel of something original. It’s a film that is bathed in punky neon colours while indulging in the bleak, grey environs of Cold War Berlin. That contrast is at the heart of a film that has no idea of its own identity and doesn’t seem to care much about that, blithely veering in tones almost as often as the allegiances of its characters shift in the wake of endless betrayals and double crosses. It’s a bonkers film without much care for narrative coherence and that proves to be its biggest issue – it’s almost impossible to actually know what’s going on.
Narrative coherence, though, has been traded for some of the best action that has been depicted on the big screen this year. Leitch brings a ‘Wickian’ sense of balletic gun-fu to the action and there’s some use of improvised household weaponry that recalls Gareth Evans and his Raid movies. One virtuoso scene, designed to appear as an unbroken near-ten-minute take, sees Theron battle a group of heavies in the stairwell of a tower block. Every punch lands and the exhaustion that builds throughout the breathless sequence is palpable in the performances, contrasted cleverly with the tireless energy of Leitch’s roving camera.
Charlize Theron is bruised, battered and beaten throughout the movie, with every scuffle leaving its mark on her body. We frequently see Theron submerge herself in an ice bath and given the punishment she takes, that’s no surprise. Theron emerges from the film looking thoroughly ferocious and every inch an action hero, which is not a trait that applies to co-star James McAvoy. He seemingly picks up where he left off in Split with a character who is feral and wild, seemingly serving a different paymaster every time he pops up. Far more convincing is Sofia Boutella, who really makes the best of a brief role as a mysterious French woman.
The question of whether Atomic Blonde is a great action movie is a tough one. On the level of pure fight choreography and adrenaline, it’s one of the most impressive genre films in recent years. However, it’s a dysfunctional, disfigured mess of a story that struggles to find purchase outside of its chilly cinematography and Theron’s tenacious, committed performance. It’s a paranoia thriller with a campy 80s-pop soundtrack and a bouillabaisse of tones that never coalesce. When it hits, though, it hits incredibly hard.
Pop or Poop?
Charlize Theron and David Leitch prove to be a compelling, violent double act in Atomic Blonde. It’s a film that stumbles as often as it flies, but it is strongest when it settles into pure popcorn entertainment.
James McAvoy’s unhinged performance, meanwhile, almost serves as a metaphor for a film that never quite seems to know what it’s doing unless it has a gun, blade or miscellaneous household object in its hands.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.