by Philip Price
From director David Leitch, one half of the team that brought us the refreshing and uniquely packaged “John Wick” as well as the guy who is spearheading next year's “Deadpool 2,” comes “Atomic Blonde” - a female version of “John Wick” set in the ‘80s, with tons of ‘80s music, action, action, and starring Charlize Theron as the titular blonde who doesn't mind messing up her make-up if a cool soundtrack is laid over her walking away from her fights. Yeah, I'd love to see that movie. Who wouldn't, right? It would seem anyone who loves having a good time while sitting in an air-conditioned auditorium eating food that's not going to help you look like the people you're watching on screen (at all) and staring up at an expansive screen would be thrilled by the combo of Theron, ‘80s, and action. I was certainly psyched. And then...please! No "and then"! And then it happened. Yes, it happened. After an equally ecstatic and moody introduction to this world in which we'd be existing for the next two hours the movie rapidly descended into a rather slow-moving, narrative heavy slog that would only intermittently bring us a sequence where Theron's Lorraine Broughton could let loose. But boy, when Leitch and screenwriter Kurt Johnstad (“300”) allow their leading lady to show off she certainly doesn't disappoint. This is also what is ultimately so frustrating about “Atomic Blonde” as it rather frequently gives us glimpses of what it could have been, what it was advertised to be, and what it seemingly wants to be as the action scenes are inspired, the backing tracks to Theron kicking ass are killer, and the film generally looks great-capturing the tone of late eighties Berlin by coating everything around our main character and her exploits in drab shades of gray to emphasize the burst of energy Broughton brings with her when she walks in a room. And yet, for one reason or another, Leitch decided to allow long stretches of his movie to become overly involved in Johnstad's plotting when what made both the original “John Wick” and its sequel so much fun was the simplicity of the plot and the building of an interesting world. “Atomic Blonde” doesn't build a world as much as it recreates one; “Atomic Blonde” doesn't keep the emphasis on the action, but wants audiences to take its twisting plot as seriously as Leitch no doubt takes his stunt work, but while “Atomic Blonde” feels carefully constructed and as precise in all aspects a director could hope it also never feels as fun or entertaining as it was meant to be.
Set in 1989 in East Berlin the film opens as we see a man who we surmise is a secret agent being killed by another man who it turns out is an enforcer in the KGB that is seeking the always reliable maguffin of a list of every active field agent in the Soviet Union. This, of course, would lead to the bad guys identifying and ultimately killing a lot of well-trained, but unsuspecting special agents who have done nothing but try and serve their country and their United Kingdom well. The film then jumps forward a few weeks where our protagonist, Theron’s Broughton, is bathing in an ice bath with bruises covering nearly every square inch of her flesh. She is deliberate in every one of her actions as she dresses, collects her belongings, and boards an aircraft to return home where she is immediately taken in by Secret Intelligence Service officials Eric Gray (Toby Jones) and the mysterious Chief ‘C’ (James Faulkner) who, along with American CIA agent Emmett Kurzfeld (John Goodman), interrogate Broughton to get her account of how everything went sideways in Berlin. As Broughton tells it, she was made from the moment her feet touched the ground (and probably even before) as her contact and on the ground, agent David Percival (James McAvoy), didn’t even bother to show up in time to pick her up at the airport. Percival had previously been tasked with transporting the man who stole and memorized the list who is now codenamed Spyglass (Eddie Marsan) across the border, but upon Broughton’s arrival to track down the killer of that initial agent as well as retrieve the list-which has been hidden in a wrist watch, of course-Percival begins to get a little too cagey and suspicious with his actions. Amid all this Broughton also meets Delphine Lasalle (Sofia Boutella) who is a novice French agent also on the tail of the KGB and the ruthless billionaire arms dealer leading an espionage ring in war-torn Berlin, Aleksander Bremovych (Roland Møller). Lasalle and Broughton develop something of a genuine relationship though as “Atomic Blonde,” which is an adaptation of Antony Johnston’s 2012 graphic novel, The Coldest City, runs its course it becomes more and more clear that nothing is as it appears and that Broughton’s intentions might not only be that of bringing back the list and saving the lives of the agents whose identities reside on it, but a little more complex than even the script would care to acknowledge.
With the onslaught of trailers, clips, and other promotional materials one might have seen around “Atomic Blonde” it wouldn’t have been confusing would someone have thought this would be an energetic, no-holds barred, actioner that was set to the rhythm of a few good eighties tunes and supplied just enough plot to string the no doubt breathtaking action sequences together as well as enough of an investment in our main character so as to care about whether or not she survives through to the end despite the fact we know that she will the entire time. In several instances, “Atomic Blonde” is just that: it has a plethora of ‘80s tunes that provide a backdrop for the time and the tone of that period as well as even some context regarding the kind of statement being made or the idea being played out in terms of assisting the audience in how to more fully understand and assess the film in terms of what Leitch and his creative team were going for. There are action sequences that are as impressive as anything that has been put to screen in recent memory including Leitch and Chad Stahelski’s work on the ‘John Wick’ films as “Atomic Blonde” features a Charlize Theron who smacks a guy with a freezer door knocking him out cold (pun totally intended) and then wrapping an extension cord around another guy’s neck who she then uses as an anchor as she jumps out of a multi-story building. All of this is set, comically, to the tune of George Michael’s “Father Figure,” which works to both highlight the insane action taking place while at the same time adding something of an unexpected moodiness to the scene that combines to present this epic-ness to the presence of Broughton which is what any such action movie positioned around a single, exceptional weapon requires. This won’t be the sequence folks will be talking about as they leave the theater though, no, that one is reserved for one that takes place later in the film (ironically only using the cracks of bones, blasts of gunfire, and screeches of tires as its soundtrack) that is presented as if it has been captured in a single shot. Beginning in a stairwell with Theron taking on multiple adversaries, moving into a multi-room apartment where Leitch and his stunt team utilize corners and nooks to their advantage and allow their characters to use common household materials to theirs-the scene eventually evolves into a rather lengthy car-chase that, while likely comprised of three or four unbroken takes, are combined to look as if it were a relentless 10-plus minute single take of our heroine kicking ass and taking names while taking our breath away which it deservedly does. Unfortunately, between such moments “Atomic Blonde” fails to engage either on an intellectual or emotional level as the narrative is too convoluted to trust any logic it tries to lay down and the characters ultimately function as little more than plot devices despite the talented cast giving it their all leaving little room for the viewer to genuinely engage with them.
It would seem rather cliché to critique a film based on style over substance and you won’t find that here as “Atomic Blonde” was always going to be a movie that had style for days whereas it seemed apparent its substance could only trickle so deep, but by trying to flip such expectations the film both writes itself into a hole of spy movie conventions while never digging deep enough into certain avenues that it only begins to explore. And so, it is in these long interims between action set pieces that we come to meet the players in this game we don’t care nearly enough about and where the film makes slight attempts at being about something more than just the action, but never has the balls to truly go all-in on. Rather, Johnstad’s screenplay only tips its hat towards ideas such as the ever-balancing conscience of a secret agent or spy who, while their job is to save the world, also must consider where they might go once that world is saved. If their objective is ever truly accomplished in full what would there be left for them to do? While individuals in such positions likely know this will never actually be an issue there is the smaller scale version of this problem that has them becoming so ingrained and, for lack of a better term, comfortable in their current role that they fear having to adjust to something new or take on a different type of challenge. “Atomic Blonde” explores this to some extent through McAvoy’s character as his Percival is the one that has lived in Berlin for such a period and fallen in love with the city to the point that he’s clearly having trouble reconciling who he once was and who he’s become. As many a spy films do, “Atomic Blonde” also touches on the idea of each of its characters worlds being entirely based upon secrets and the difference in knowing when to buy in and when to call bullshit. Theron’s Broughton is a pro of sorts at this as the actresses' performance becomes more and more striking with each passing frame where she’s not kicking ass through the power of her non-verbal communications that allow the audience in on the fact she is keenly aware of the difference between the truth and lies, but simply chooses to ignore most of it in favor of turning situations into those that will favor her best interests down the road. So yeah, “Atomic Blonde” certainly has a lot of good things going for it as the performances from Theron, McAvoy, and Boutella are all gauged in accordance with the tone Leitch is seeking while Leitch and cinematographer Jonathan Sela give the movie style beyond measure, but at the end of the day for all the persistence and power the movie has it ends up feeling weak not in its execution, but in its harmony with what it thinks it is. The movie itself never being able to match up with the energy of the music.