Director David Leitch aims to build upon the success he had with the Keanu Reeves hit John Wick. Charlize Theron looks to expand upon the bad ass action star qualities she showed in Mad Max : Fury Road. Short verdict? They’ve each been pretty successful.
Told through a series of flashbacks, Atomic Blonde chronicles a ten-day period leading to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Ahead of that landmark occasion, we meet up with elite MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton (Theron) on a mission to recover a secret list of allied agents stolen by a KGB assassin, when a former MI6 colleague (and lover) turns up dead. Along the way, Broughton finds herself forced to forge uneasy alliances with British agent David Percival (James McAvoy) and a mysterious French woman (Sofia Boutella) as she navigates Berlin’s deadly, stylish, and endlessly cool underworld to accomplish her mission and get out alive.
That’s the core thesis of this film, but it only gets murkier from there. The story gets a tad convoluted, and the amount of double and triple crosses that end up happening start to border on the ridiculous. It becomes clear quite early on that Atomic Blonde is a classic case of style over substance – not that’s particularly a bad thing. The film is unquestionably beautiful to look at, and Leitch does a phenomenal job with regards to adding warmth, vibrancy, and color to a city and era that’s often depicted in dull shades of grey and brown. Couple that with a synth-centric 1980s soundtrack, and it has a unique aesthetic that’s certainly memorable.
That sense of style and spectacle goes double for the film’s action sequences, which are easily some of the best that you’ll see all year. Leitch brings the same technical prowess to the fist fights that he did for John Wick, and as a result, Atomic Blonde never fails to deliver refreshingly bone-crunching melees. Unlike in Wick though, Theron isn’t portrayed here as an unstoppable force of nature. She is simply a natural brawler with an incredible pain tolerance and a willingness to do anything to get the job done.
On that note, no discussion about the action in Atomic Blonde would be complete without giving special credit to the film’s central “stairway fight,” that featured prominently in the trailers. Without delving too far into spoiler territory, I can confirm that it is unquestionably one of the best fight sequences ever committed to film (in western cinema, at least. The one take ‘hammer fight’ from Park Chan Wooks Oldboy is still tops in my book).
Of course, none of this would be possible without the central performance that grounds the entire film. Charlize Theron absolutely nails it in this movie, and Lorraine Broughton offers her a chance to realise the bonafide action star that’s been waiting to be fully unleashed. Every muscle in her body commits to the film’s many action sequences, and Theron sells Broughton’s jaded and mysterious pain, not to mention generous helpings of sex appeal, in a way that we haven’t seen in a movie since Daniel Craig’s earliest days as James Bond in Casino Royale.
That’s not to say that the other performances in the movie aren’t good, as well. James McAvoy provides his typically reliable charm (with a touch of sliminess for good measure), and Sofia Boutella again proves that she’s one of Hollywood’s most underutilised actresses. However, this is ultimately Theron’s show, and she dominates every single one of her scenes. If there’s one small complaint to have about her, it’s that she’s maybe a bit too mysterious for the bulk of the film’s run time, and the story doesn’t give us enough reasons to root for her aside from the fact that she’s obviously the protagonist.
To conclude, the sheer amount of technical skill and commitment on display in Atomic Blonde is impressive, with it’s leading lady rightly front and centre throughout. If you’re an action nut with an affinity for style and verve, then Atomic Blonde will almost certainly deliver, but those looking for a coherent story and a bit more substance should look elsewhere.