I’ve been trying to figure out how to start this review for a couple of hours now, struggling to hone in on just what it is about Atomic Blonde I didn’t like while also making sure to avoid dipping into male movie reviewer cliche (such as jokingly referring to this female spy flick as “Jane Bond”). I’m over-thinking it, though. So, let’s simplify. How did I feel while walking out of the theater immediately after seeing Atomic Blonde? Disappointed that the movie is not as good as it should be, confused over the gotcha twist ending and, actually, happy. I’d just been sufficiently entertained.
It’s the “happy” part I should emphasize here because despite all of Atomic Blonde’s flaws it is ultimately an entertaining movie, particularly for anyone already open to the idea of a female-fronted Jason Bourne or John Wick. It’s not perfect. It gets a bit lost in its own overly complicated plot. And the intricately choreographed fight scenes grow overly repetitive. However, this is a film which has style to spare, a kickass cast, memorable soundtrack and an epic one-take 12-minute hallway fight/car chase sequence which film nerds will still be talking about for years to come.
THE PART WHERE I TALK ABOUT THE PLOT
Based on Antony Johnston’s graphic novel The Coldest City, Atomic Blonde tells the story of Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron), an MI6 agent sent into the hornet’s nest of 1989 East Berlin. She is ordered by her superior (Toby Jones) to investigate the death of her former partner (and secret lover), track down a standard spy movie NOC list (i.e., the MacGuffin of the first Mission Impossible) and also suss out the identity of a double agent known as “Satchel.” Her reward for a job well done will be “tea with the Queen,” but it’ll be far from easy.
Her only contact in Berlin is a fellow MI6 agent named Percival (a scene-stealing James McAvoy) who has gone seriously native and seems to be plotting against her. There’s a mysterious French woman (Sofia Boutella, whose best efforts are wasted here) constantly tailing her. And a bevy of Russians claim they just want to talk when in fact they sure seem to want to kill her. All the while, world events transpire around all of them to bring about the fall of the Berlin Wall.
We see all of this through a framing device wherein a remarkably bloodied and bruised Broughton is briefing her boss and a visiting CIA agent (John Goodman) on what exactly happened to her in Berlin. These scenes are initially helpful but wear out their usefulness, instead mostly serving to highlight how cool Broughton looks when she chain smokes. It all dovetails into unreliable narrator territory when the plot veers off track in its overly messy final act.
THE PART WHERE I TALK ABOUT THE FASHION
But, of course, that often is the entire point of Atomic Blonde. To simply look cool at all times. In fact, costume designer Cindy Evans told Total Film, “My conversation with Charlize always started with the word ‘cool’. That was our mantra. That word makes you feel like anything is possible. It makes you reach deeper and want to do something visually spectacular.”
So, Broughton is always spectacularly attired in a combination of Dior and Galliano coats and gowns and thrift store shirts and hoodies. She does very little to blend in in any traditional sense since ‘89 Berlin was such a vibrant spot that a spy in traditional, non-descript clothing would have stood out. Broughton is able to blend in more by simpling walking around looking like an even more stunning Debbie Harry.
This eye for “cool” extends to the stylized production design, which often drowns us in the various neon signs of the time, as well as director David Leitch’s various inventive camera movements (and occasional fourth-wall breaking moments) and editor Elísabet Ronaldsdóttir’s clear eye for clever scene transitions.
THE PART WHERE I TALK ABOUT THE FIGHT SCENES
Broughton’s effortless cool and icy facade serve to make the fight scenes all the more effective, contrasting her glamour with a sudden and utter brutality which borrows liberally from both Jason Bourne’s found-object style of combat and John Wick’s patented gun-fu. Interestingly, the early fights and chases are glorified music videos set to the beat of periodic-specific pop songs, often with very on-the-nose lyrics or titles. However, then the epic hallway oner arrives and offers up no score beyond the ambient noise of Charlize Theron and some talented stunt people throwing themselves into walls and down some stairs.
This, of course, is a David Leitch specialty. For over 20 years prior to breaking through as co-director of John Wick, he served as a stunt coordinator, and his co-owned production company 87Eleven is now the go-to place for actors in need of stunt training. Theron trained there for months (alongside Keanu Reeves, who was preparing for John Wick 2), and she had the bruises, chipped teeth and persistent need for painkillers to show for it by the time she made it to the Atomic Blonde set, where she reportedly insisted on doing the majority of her own stunts.
And one of the hallmarks of the John Wick franchise and now of Atomic Blonde is they feel as if they’ve been made by action movie lovers/experts who are now bringing to life the scenes they’ve always wanted to see on film. Blonde’s hallway oner, for example, was born out of a cinematographer once lamenting to Leitch that he wished there was a way to actually stick with the characters during a fight scene, to not have to cut away. So, Leitch and his team came up with a way to use invisible cuts to do that, fooling us into thinking an extended sequence which begins with Broughton entering a building to take out some Russian assassins and ends with her escaping from a car sinking to the bottom of a river all happened in real time. It’s an absolute jaw-dropper, challenging everyone else in the business of making action movies to up in their game if they want to top what Atomic Blonde just pulled off.
It also happens roughly halfway through the movie, though. Nothing that comes afterward remotely lives up to it. Moreover, the fight choreography here and elsewhere in the movie grows hopelessly repetitive, with Broughton displaying the same set of moves over and over again, her every action tailored to emphasize the ingenuity needed to prevail against much larger men. I mean, it’s still fairly awesome to behold, but the cumulative effect wears on you as the movie drags on with its feels-longer-than-it-actually-is 115-minute running time.
THE PART WHERE I TALK ABOUT THE CASUAL (AND NOT-SO-CASUAL) FEMINISM
It would be silly to pretend like a female spy in 1989 Berlin would have it just as easy as the men. So, Atomic Blonde leans into the idea that a key to Broughton’s success is the consistent way men underestimate her.
It’s all part of the film’s casual feminism, which also includes a somewhat gratuitous detour into a sapphic union with Boutella and an unwillingness to pull any literal punches just because the lead character is a girl. That’s all fine and good, but for as much as Atomic Blonde wants to embrace gender diversity and turn Broughton into a female John Wick, Jason Bourne and James Bonde all rolled into one it forgets to actually turn her into much of a character. Underneath all of her fashion, grit and cool, there’s almost nothing to Broughton in the way of motivation (beyond basic survival) and background beyond a vague hint that she too was once as innocent as Boutella’s impossibly naive French spy. When Broughton outright explains her moral code to an enemy in one of the final scenes it’s almost laughable because the film hasn’t earned such a moment for her.
This is a criticism Theron has already pushed back on, telling Total Film, “When the first review came out and there was a lot of like: ‘Well, we don’t know who she is!’ and ‘They didn’t spend any time explaining her to us.’ I was like, ‘Nobody writes that about Bourne!’”
The problem with that defense is Bourne’s unknowability in his first film is baked into the plot. The film doesn’t tell us who he is because he himself doesn’t know who he is, what with the amnesia. The search to learn more about him is the driving force of the trilogy. Similarly, Broughton might be just as much of a blank stare as John Wick, but there he has a motivation – an easily mocked motivation (they killed my dog), but one that actually carries a larger meaning (my dead wife left me that dog, you bastards). There’s something for you to latch onto there.
With Broughton, though, it’s a whole lot of nothing, just vague hints and flashes of something human underneath the carefully guarded surface, thus making her most similar to James Bond, a character I’ve never particularly cared for.
But Theron is undeniably good at playing this woman and is capable of doing far more with her should there be a sequel. Plus, the main attraction here is not the character but the fight scenes. That – that Atomic Blonde knows how to do.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Director David Leitch and star-producer Charlize Theron didn’t quite make the cinematic game-changer they were going for, but it’s fun watching them try.