For me, action films fall into two categories. Some are built around amazing set pieces with a cool story to set them up. Others are carried by a charismatic leads with commanding screen presence. Those leads have traditionally been male, but Charlize Theron joined the ranks of the action heroes with Mad Max: Fury Road.
Atomic Blonde is the latest notch on Theron’s action resume. The film’s twisty narrative never quite works out, as some of the twists are either confusing or contradict themselves. But the gritty action, Theron’s cooly confident spy Lorraine Broughton, and James McAvoy’s manic performance carry a surprisingly dark but compelling spy film.
In the waning days of the Cold War, Theron’s Broughton is sent by MI6 to investigate the death of fellow spy/former lover James Gasciogne in Berlin at the hands of Satchel, a mysterious double agent. She is dropped into a world of shifting alliances, grey morality, and violent KGB operatives. Her only guide? McAvoy’s David Percival, a fellow British spy who has immersed himself in that troubling world. All are in pursuit of Spyglass (Eddie Marson), a Russian with a list of every active operative that could destroy the clandestine community.
Action films aren’t known for acting , but Atomic Blonde is that rare exception. This is definitely Theron’s film. As an action hero, her physicality is impressive and amazing to watch. In the film’s knock down, drag out fights, she more than holds her own. Broughton is right up there with other spy heroes with fighting chops, like a Jason Bourne.
But more importantly, Theron gives Broughton depth as a character. On the outside, the character is cool to the point of being frozen, but Theron’s performance makes it clear that this is a tough facade used for survival. She is a badass, a spy with plans…but she is also troubled by the violent and deceptive life she leads. It makes Broughton into a complete character and you feel compelled to watch her for her struggles both physically and mentally. This is nowhere near Theron’s best performance, but her confident screen presence dominates and carries the film.
On the other side of the coin, James McAvoy is compellingly manic as Percival. While Broughton questions the shades of gray around her, Percival jumps in head first…after a few shots of vodka. McAvoy has a ball playing the charmingly sleazy Percival, and you will have a ball watching him. He comes this close to going over the top, but he also gives the character some depth.
The rest of the cast is solid. John Goodman and Toby Jones are fine as the heads of the CIA and MI6. However, Sofia Boutella feels a bit wasted as a naive French spy that becomes a love interest for Broughton. There isn’t a lot of chemistry between the two (The much publicized sex scene between the two feels tacked on) and there is nothing to the character other than her confusing naivete. How could a spy be this clueless?
Action Loosely Tied Together A Few Twists Too Many
Director David Leitch and screenwriter Kurt Jonhstad have created a surprisingly dark spy thriller with some crazy action. The trailers have rightly concentrated on the beautifully physical set pieces. Leitch’s background in stunt work is on full display here. It manages to mix some realism, shocking violence, and most importantly, fun. You will laugh and gasp as Broughton takes on everyone that dares stand in her way.
Atomic Blonde does its best to be cool. The late 1980s setting allows for a rocking soundtrack that is utilized to perfection. Cinematographer Jonathan Sela frames many scenes nicely and the fight scenes use just the right amount of “shaky cam” to create chaos rather than confusion. There are striking neons everywhere, adding to the artificial world these spies live in.
However, beneath the cool veneer of the neon soaked Berlin and awesome fights is a dark theme. The film shows us a dangerous and dirty world where betrayal is almost certain. Spies like Broughton and Percival live lives full of lies, and those lies take their toll. While this is an admirable dose of maturity in the usually mindless action genre, it doesn’t always work.
Twists are expected in any spy film, but Atomic Blonde’s twists don’t add up. The identity of the double agent Satchel is up in the air for most of the film and is a compelling mystery. However, the eventual reveal doesn’t make a lot of sense. In fact, it contradicts much of what happens before.
A tacked on “happy” ending also plays into the film’s pacing problem. There is a moment in the third act that feels like a perfect ending…but then the film keeps going. There are multiple points where the film feels like it’s winding down, but then ramps up again. While this film is an enjoyable ride, it is a messy and somewhat long one.
Problematic, But Fun
Atomic Blonde’s ’80s setting makes it an unintentional (Or is it brilliantly intentional?) throwback to the action flicks of that era. Those films didn’t have the deepest stories, but they were still enjoyable. As stated above, this is Charlize Theron’s film. She continues her ass-kicking ways while also adding some impressive depth to her heroines. This is far from a perfect film, but it is still a fun ride.
SCORE: 7.5 OUT OF 10