Film Review: Atomic Blonde

Charlize Theron is a Stoli-swilling superspy extraordinaire in David Leitch’s worthy follow-up to 'John Wick.'
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In 2014, Chad Stahelski and an uncredited David Leitch reinvigorated the action genre with John Wick, which stripped away big-budget, explosion-heavy set-pieces in favor of Keanu Reeves wailing on a seemingly endless wave of minions for an hour and forty minutes. Now, Charlize Theron picks up John Wick’s bareknuckle brawler mantle as MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton in Leitch’s Cold War-set Atomic Blonde.

Let’s establish this right out of the gate: Whereas the plot of John Wick was a couldn’t-be-simpler “Man’s dog gets killed. Man is upset. Man murders a bunch of people,” the plot of Atomic Blonde is at times nigh incomprehensible. The basic strokes are easy enough to pick up. Lorraine is tasked with going to Berlin to retrieve your standard spy-movie MacGuffin: a list of every active agent and their aliases. Her mission comes ready-made with a partner: Percival (James McAvoy), a fellow British intelligence agent whose years in chaotic Cold War-era Berlin—a city of bribery, betrayal and ever-shifting alliances—has turned him, in the words of one senior intelligent official, a bit “feral.”

Add in details—like the existence of a mole, code named “Satchel,” whom Lorraine’s been tasked with rooting out—and things start to get a bit squiffy. That’s not least because the bulk of Atomic Blonde is told in flashback, with Lorraine recounting her mission-gone-wrong in a debriefing after the fact. Why would KGB agents—or were they KGB agents?—give Lorraine a tip (in the form of a business card) and then try to kill her immediately after? What did she know about certain characters’ motivations, and when? The plot’s an ever-shifting puzzle. Lorraine, taciturn and untrusting, may know how the pieces fit together, but she’s not telling us.

The whole thing’s a bit frustrating, especially as the movie hits its midway point and you begin to wonder what, exactly, you’re watching, and why. Everything’s opaque—the story, the characters, the goals. What’s the point? But, then, the lack of clarity is the point. Leitch makes brilliant use of a Berlin that’s on the brink of a massive seismic change. We’re constantly reminded, through TV footage seen in the background and youth protestors seen on the ground, that the Berlin Wall is days out from falling, leaving decades of MI6, KGB and CIA subterfuge all but moot. After an hour and a half of wondering what the hell’s going on, in the last 20 minutes Atomic Blonde really snaps into focus, giving us a quick barrage of plot twists that make sense of the earlier confusion. Mostly. I think.

Some advice, then, from me to you: In order to maximize your enjoyment of Atomic Blonde, don’t try to figure anything out. Just enjoy the ride. Because what a damn fun ride it is. Theron, proving her action chops yet again after a career-shifting performance in Mad Max: Fury Road, is nothing short of incredible as a world-weary spy making it through one death-defying situation after another through sheer, bloody-minded stubbornness. Lorraine doesn’t do much by way of talking or establishing emotional connections—the exception is French agent Delphine Lasalle (Sofia Boutella), with whom she shares a few steamy nights and short pillow-talk sessions—so it would be easy under the care of a lesser actress for her to come across as cold or robotic. But Lorraine never does. Her rage, her despair, her exhaustion all come across in Theron’s gaze.

I’d be remiss not to mention McAvoy, who’s reinvented himself after an early string of costume dramas as an actor who (how to say this subtly) enjoys cutting loose. McAvoy’s best when he’s having fun, as he is here, playing a too-smart-for-his-own good secret agent whose moral compass has become decalibrated by years living in the heart of chaos.

Theron’s strong performance (McAvoy doesn’t so much by way of hand-to-hand) in turn elevates the action scenes, which would be good—but not as good—even without an actress of her caliber at the helm. As in John Wick, there’s little slickness to the fight choreography. The participants get tired. They get hurt. Their punches slow down and their shots miss their targets. There’s a particularly amazing fight that takes place in a stairwell and contains no obvious cuts, as if Leitch—a stunt coordinator before he moved to directing—is saying “Look, Ma! Actual fighting!”

The fights are brutal, but they’re also never dry, due to Atomic Blonde’s strong sense of style. Neon suffuses the screen at regular intervals. Eighties pop hits are well-represented—“99 Luftballoons” shows up not once, but twice, and George Michael gets a particularly good musical cue. As in Edgar Wright’s recent Baby Driver, music and action are integrated flawlessly. I don’t know if Leitch was part of the “MTV Generation” that grew up watching music-videos, but the timing works out, and I wouldn’t be surprised.

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