Atomic Blonde, starring Charlize Theron and featuring James McAvoy, Toby Jones and John Goodman is the directorial effort – a full debut if you will allow – of David Leitch. Leitch, an actor, stuntman, writer and producer, came to prominence as one of the co-directors on the brilliant Keanu Reeves starrer, John Wick. With its simple premise and brisk execution, John Wick was one of the best action films to come out in the last few years.
One of the reasons for its success was given as the expertise of its two directors in stunt work and action set piece coordination. This expertise is evident in Atomic Blonde. Every fight scene, almost as impressive as John Wick, is fluid and kinetic, the sound design implemented perfectly for every punch, kick, knee and bullet. There is one fight sequence towards the end of the film that is so gratifyingly violent it is almost worth the admission price on its own.
The statuesque Theron is perfectly cast as Lorraine Broughton – not the greatest spy name – an MI6 operative sent into cold war Germany, in nineteen eighty-nine, to retrieve a list that contains a list of all the undercover operatives in Europe. The situation is complicated by fractious East/West relations as the Berlin wall is seen as the symbol of oppression that it was and some other nonsense wherein the operative who had the list was an old flame of Lorraine. Lorraine is told her contact in Berlin is David Percival (McAvoy) an agent who has been undercover for some time in Berlin.
Cards on the table, I must admit I did not love this film. It was by no means terrible or even bad. It was just okay. The biggest problem is the convoluted story. The ‘missing list’ story has been done so many times it is becoming its own sub-genre! It was done fantastically in Skyfall and to great comedic effect in Spy. In Atomic Blonde, the list is seen as so vital that every covert agency and nefarious group in the world wants it. I, however, didn’t care.
A spy ‘thriller’, punctuated with some great action scenes, Atomic Blonde is unnecessarily complex in the story with one never sure if any character is who they purport to be. It also utilises a, in my opinion, detrimental style in the telling of the story, with a beat up looking Lorraine recalling the events in a debriefing meeting, post mission. The story is shown in flashback, interspersed with tension free moments of her being questioned in the present.
As far as I can see, the title of the film only serves as reference to Theron’s stylistic nod to eighties Debbie Harry and – a little misguidedly – her explosive fighting style. I say it’s misguided because – and I cannot emphasise this enough – it is not an action film. There is too much Tinker, Tailor and not enough Die Hard for it to be a true action film, which is a pity because, as I alluded to earlier, the fight scenes are truly spectacular.
With the talent on show the acting is, of course, top class. McAvoy as the caddish Percival is probably the standout alongside Theron’s Lorraine, though I feel Sofia Boutella as the callow French spy Delphine Lasalle is very good, she is not served by an underwritten character. The story also suffers from – especially in the first hour – pedestrian pacing, the constant back and forth really slowing things down.
Roland Moller, who plays the chief antagonist, Aleksander Bremovych, is basically asked to deliver a clichéd villain’s performance, with his introduction, by – believe me this not much of a spoiler – killing a quivering youth with a skateboard, is so heavily signposted it fails to elicit any real impact. After his show of Alpha maleness, he is barely seen for the rest of the film.
Technically Atomic Blonde is very good. So uninspired by the story unfolding on the screen was I that I was able to appreciate the deliberate silver-whiteness of the colour palette, aiding the eighties feel of the film. Though I liked the sound design in general, I did not love the soundtrack. Having said that, Theron’s Lorraine using George Michael as a sound suppressant in one fight scene was inspired.
Atomic Blonde is not the worse way to spend two hours and I would even say the fight scenes are worth the admission price, but if you were hoping for an engaging story and action flick, Atomic Blonde misses the mark.